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Film Comment (1973) - The eyehole of knowledge




An imperious and independent writer, seventy-four year-old Vladimir Nabokov is typical of his generation in only one way: an indifference or hostility toward most facets of "popular culture," Hollywood films in particularly (see Edmund Wilson's The Boys in the Back Room [1940-41], noteworthy for its representative and influential negative opinions). During the course of Lolita the reader sees Humbert's obsessional lust metamorphose into genuine love, a redeeming passage absent from Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie version as the director admits; see his film comment interview [Volume 7, number 4, Winter 1971-72].6 Where Humbert is a clinical case, Nabokov is no less perverse in artistic terms.


An imperious and independent writer, seventyfour year-old Vladimir Nabokov is typical of his generation in only one way: an indifference or hostility toward most facets of "popular culture," Hollywood films in particulari (see Edmund Wilson's The Boys in the Back Room [1940-41], noteworthy for its representative and influential negative opinions). "I'm no cinéaste," says Nabokov;' his first viewing of CITIZEN KANE was in 1972, on Swiss television (Nabokov and his wife live in Montreux). "Extraordinary! A masterpiece. But I think it was mutilated by arbitrary cuts." A favorite scene? "Yes, the clutter of the final sequence," but Nabokov said no more about that labyrinth of impersonal possessions, singled out too by Jorge Luis Borges inai 945 review of the film.2 Any other scenes? "It's curious," he answered, "but I don't remember most films very well." "Welles called the 'Rosebud' ending dollarbook Freud. Do you agree?" inquired the curious guest, a persistent cinéaste. Nabokov shrugged his shoulders, and the conversation turned to soccer, an enthusiasm dating back to his undergraduate playing days at Cambridge.

"We rarely attend the cinema here," Nabokov said later, "though we did see Fellini's wonderful 8 1⁄2. L'ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À MARIENBAD was brilliant, too [Véra Nabokov agrees], but Robbe-Grillet's scenario resists discourse, doesn't it?"- though Nabokov is willing to speak at length of Robbe-Grillet's novels, "worthy of the Nobel Prize." Except for these recent viewings, a handful of silent classics, an isolated genre film or two (THE HANDS OF ORLAC [1925], THE KILLERS [1946]), and the great comic performers (Keaton ef al., an important exception), movies are not Vladimir Nabokov's touchstones for excellence.3 Yet certain pervasive attitudes, effects, and techniques in his novels could not have been achieved without a knowledge of cinema; his memory for movies has in fact served him well enough.

"From its threshold he would fire half a dozen times in quick succession, as they do in American movies," writes Nabokov of one of Franz' several jejune plans to murder Dreyer, the cuckolded husband in King, Queen, Knave (1 928), a novel exactly contemporary with Josef von Sternberg's early Romantic gangster films THE DRAG NET and UNDERWORLD." As a young hoodlum the late Joey Gallo stylized himself after Richard Widmark's image in kiss of death; and Franz' unimaginative vision also suggests the way popular culture forms and fatally twists its consumers. Almost forty years later, Humbert Humbert incorporates in his narrative some lyrics from "Little Carmen," Lolita's favorite pop song, adding his own parenthetical denouement: "Drew his .32 automatic, I guess, and put a bullet through his moll's eye."6 Reunited with the pregnant, veiny-armed, no longer nymphic Lolita, Humbert realizes that he "loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else" (page 279). But when wan Mrs. Schiller (Lolita) refuses to go away with him only three pages later, he says, "I pulled out my automatic-I mean this is the kind of fool thing a reader might suppose I did" (page 282)- a trash-afflicted reader (and indiscriminate movie-goer) who believes that sentimentalized violence, predictable by virtue of pop conventions, is truly the heart's revenge and a realization of consciousness. That verbal trap, or end-game move, is typical of Nabokov; it also has its equivalent in many films and fine recent novels written in the wake of Lolita and Pale Fire (vide Anthony Burgess, John Gardner, Thomas Pynchon, Jerome Charyn, Charles Newman, Robert Coover, Joseph McElroy, Donald Barthleme, Steven Millhauser, and Vivian Darkbloom).

During the course of Lo/;fa the reader sees Humbert's obsessional lust metamorphose into genuine love, a redeeming passage absent from Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie version (as the director admits; see his film comment interview [Volume 7, number 4, Winter 1971-72].6 Where Humbert is a clinical case, Nabokov is no less perverse in artistic terms. To be sure that readers understand Lolita as a novel about love (insofar as one can say that any complex work of art is finally "about" one discernible, reducible element), Nabokov structures it as a kind of anti-pornographic novel and film. Only the first thirteen chapters of Humbert's "confession," allegedly written in prison, are truly erotic (the trickster's signal number is a reader's unlucky omen). The Foreword by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., allows for the book's "controversial" (i.e., Dirty) nature- a titillating prospect- but the coitus interruptus suffered by young Humbert and his girleen on the Riviera also augurs poorly for common readers (page 15). Humbert is soon rehearsing (all too succinctly?) his shoddy, unsatisfactory encounters with nymphet-like prostitutes in Paris:

". . . an asthmatic woman, coarsely painted, garrulous, garlicky, with an almost farcical Provençal accent and a black mustache above a purple lip, took me to what was apparently her own domicile, and there, after explosively kissing the bunched tips of her fat fingers to signify the delectable rosebud quality of her merchandise, she theatrically drew aside a curtain to reveal what I judged was that part of the room where a large and unfastidious family usually slept. It was now empty save for a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen with red-ribboned thick black braids who sat on a chair perfunctorily nursing a bald doll. When I shook my head and tried to shuffle out of the trap, the woman, talking fast, began removing the dingy woolen jersey from the young giantess' torso; then, seeing my determination to leave, she demanded son argent. A door at the end of the room was opened, and two men who had been dining in the kitchen joined in the squabble. They were misshapen, bare-necked, very swarthy and one of them wore dark glasses. A small boy and a begrimed, bowlégged toddler lurked behind them. With the insolent logic of a nightmare, the enraged procuress, indicating the man in glasses, said he had served in the police, lui, so that I had better do as I was told. I went up to Marie- for that was her stellar name-who by then had quietly transferred her heavy haunches to a stool at the kitchen table and resumed her interrupted soup while the toddler picked up the doll. With a surge of pity dramatizing my idiotic gesture, I thrust a banknote into her indifferent hand. She surrendered my gift to the ex-detective, whereupon I was suffered to leave." (pages 25-26.)

The interlude is purposefully reminiscent of the "raw life" offered in cheap French policiers, old American pulp fiction (remember Spicy-Adventure [et al.]?), and, to move higher in a Darwinian manner, the post-war Italian "neorealistic" cinema. Humbert is humanized by his pity, but what of the readers whose gross appetites have only been stirred by the grotesque mise-en-scène? That enticing "theatrical curtain" and the procuress' "trap" describe Nabokov's principal sleight-of-hand trick in Lolita. By surrendering son argent, Humbert escapes, but the reader who wants more action (in both the literal and slangier sense) has had his expectations parodied by Nabokov. "I do not know if the pimp's [photo] album may not have been another link in the daisy chain," says Humbert (page 26); it is definitely one of several sexual "visuals" that are promised but then withheld. Instead of an accelerating novel-length crescendo of explicitly sexual scenes, the subsequent bits and pieces from Humbert's tantalizing diary (pages 42-57) only set up the reader-viewer for the next chapter, which concludes the arousing aspects of Lolita. The remainder of Humbert's narrative is diminuendo, a word that lends itself to an obvious but relevant pun.

"I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay," says Humbert (page 59), inviting the audience into his peepshow. A metteur-en-scène for the nonce, Humbert erects and unreels the sequence as though he too were a scenarist and filmmaker, like his nemesis Clare Quilty. "Place: sunlit living room. Props: old candystriped davenport, Mexican knicknacks," and Lolita (page 59). "Pity no film has recorded . . . the monogrammic linkage of our simultaneous moves," Humbert says of his orgasmic grappling with the unconcerned girl seated on his lap (page 63). It is the most overt "sex" exhibited in Lolita and an anticlimax, considering what does not happen later. "And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark," says Humbert, but the performance is not repeated (page 64); the procuress' curtain has been lowered for the duration of the novel, the pimp's album will remain firmly closed.

Stolen away from Humbert by shadowy Quilty, Lolita in turn flees from his Duk Duk Ranch7 when Quilty tries to enlist her services in one of his pornographic home movies. "He was a complete freak in sex matters, and his friends were his slaves," says Lolita. (How so? How so? we wonder.) As for the movie: "Oh, weird, filthy, fancy things. I mean, he had two girls and two boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude while an old woman took movie pictures" (page 279). Poor girl; he had promised her a part in GOLDEN GUTS, a Hollywood tennis opus. Pity too the reader who wants to see Quilty's Duk Duk film; it is not "shown" in any further detail! Nabokov has effected an infinite regress of broken promises.

The "author of fifty-two successful scenarios" and creator of a "private movie ... of [Sade's] Justine" (page 300), Quilty is Humbert's sinister alter ego and mock-Doppelgänger. (Good and Evil selves are not neatly divisible in Lolita, and, as excellent as James Mason is, Peter Sellers should have played both Humbert and Quilty in the film; "Wonderful idea!" agrees Nabokov.) Movie man Quilty also doubles, but unambiguously, the desires of those disappointed "learned readers" (page 59) who, ignoring Humbert's sorrowful warning ("I have only words to play with!" (page 34), had nevertheless hoped for the replaying of a good many "sexy" scenes. Teasingly located at the start of the affair, but never repeated, these explicit passages and scenes formulate the reader-viewer's voyeuristic prurience.

On Lolita's last page, his fictive life ebbing, Humbert's voice becomes strangely distant and authorial: "And do not pity C. Q. [ = Quilty.] One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you [Lolita] live in the minds of later generations" (page 311). Quilty, then, might have been the putative author; one wonders how many readers, denied further access to Humbert's diary, have unconsciously wished that Quilty had narrated Lo//'fa, and that his movie had formed the body of the narrative, the bodies in the narrative. "The mirrors of possibility cannot replace the eyehole of knowledge," writes Nabokov in "The Assistant Producer" (1943), his most cinematic fiction.9

Nabokov's trope limns what has always been the cinema's basic or base appeal, the vantage point which allowed unspoiled audiences of suspense (1912) to share and enjoy the prowler's keyhole view of a nursemaid and child. This perspective was reversed in footlight parade's "Honeymoon Hotel" number (1933), when the midget, dressed as a baby (the apotheosis of Freud's view of infant sexuality?), romps through Ruby's and Dick's nuptial chamber, and is ejected only to peer through their keyhole, and then turn toward the audience to wink lewdly. The pornographic peepshows that grace current "Adult Entertainment" parlors are only an extension of the first American box-office hit, the kiss (1896), Vitascope's fifty feet of torrid film drawn from the play The Widow Jones. "HOW THE PUERTO RICAN GIRLS ENTERTAIN UNCLE SAM'S SOLDIERS" declared a Mutoscope ad, ca. 1895 ("Drop Payment in Slot- Keep Turning Crank to the Right").

Mack Sennett, whose fortune was not built on slapstick alone, transported this peep-show ethos to the conventional movie house, but with a crucial difference: his Bathing Beauties, a passel of animated September Morns, cavort alone on the screen, Sennett's cleverly respectable bourgeois version of the strip-tease. In his most representative Bathing Beauty scenes (ca. 1918) there are no males present to break the dream-free circuit of audience identification and participation, by definition vicarious. The dark eyes of Sennett's garlanded nymphs are fixed on the audience: they smile and wave at our fathers and grandfathers, and invite them in for a swim. They disrobe, they gambol, they splash (children, don't laugh at their suits). Out of the sea, they change their wet togs behind a coyly curtained blanket (GOLD DIGGERS of 1933 updates the image, and Lolita uses it, too) or a large striped beach umbrella, which begins to spin, faster and faster, its vortex filling the screen, an abrupt comic distancing that reasserts the gestalt's flat, rectangular surface and reminds our somnolent dreamy forebears that screen eroticism is artifice.

Max Beerbohm's well-known caricature of Henry James at a keyhole (ca. 1 91 0) may have been correct about the passional life of the author of The Sacred Fount (1901), but it missed the point by localizing a general condition. Except, possibly, for the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China (where socialist realism remains puritanical), movie-going, if not reading, is by definition voyeuristic, and Nabokov's assaults on audience-expectations have several contemporary analogues. The voyeuristic protagonists of Alfred Hitchcock's rear window, vertigo, and psycho, a trilogy of sorts, perversely complement and comment upon audience psychology-the deep needs and desires that may or may not be fulfilled in darkened theaters. ("These new films are not like the old ones," complains the murderous narrator of Julian Symons' 1972 novel, The Players and the Game. "Though I liked psycho, that was good. The shower cabinet, the blood running away. And there is one called peeping tom, which sounds as if it should be good."10)

REAR WINDOW, the center of the "serious" or "moral" Hitchcock as first put forth by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer in their Hitchcock monograph (Paris, 1957), is by far a more obviously telling and nastier film than psycho (or even vertigo) because James Stewart is presented as a "normal" fellow. A news photographer with a broken leg, he eases his boredom by spying on the activities of his neighbors in the apartment building across the courtyard. Because James Stewart is after all James Stewart (fresh from his triumphs in manly Westerns), the audience is slow to recognize the character as a Peeping Tom. By profession a passive witness, an invader of privacy, a dispassionate recorder of mayhem and misery (the apartment is decorated with his photographs of violent events), Stewart is psychically as well as physically immobilized; he recoils from his fiancée, Grace Kelly, in favor of the variegated scenes caught in his telescopic viewfinder (an amazing enough preference, a clinical symptom). If his point-of-view represents the audience's perspective, then the apartment world into which he peers is, as has been suggested, a correlative for the screen world; each window reveals (and conceals) a donnée for a feature-film of its own, from Honeymoon Farce to Murder Melodrama. When the wife-murderer across the yard learns of Stewart's presence and invades his apartment, Hitchcock is attacking an audience as well as an actor. "What do you want of me?" asks the killer (Raymond Burr), with surprising poignancy, as he looms in the doorway, and Stewart defends himself with the tools of his trade: flashbulbs. What, indeed, do readers and viewers really want?

Because his needs and fears and traumas are so complicated, one hesitates (briefly) before claiming that James Stewart's role in VERTIGO is also an extension or reflection of an audience's experiences. Formerly a detective (a professional voyeur), Stewart has retired from the police force because of acrophobia (fear of heights). Hired by a wealthy former friend to shadow his stylish blond wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), the sexually passive Stewart falls in love with her from afar, despite the fact that Madeleine appears to be a suicidal schizophrenic. (Only recently, thanks to R. D. Laing, has this become attractive.) At first Stewart's behavior may not seem strange; as in REAR WINDOW, Hitchcock quietly casts Stewart against his screen persona, the audience's sense of Our Jimmy's affecting shyness. His infatuation with a glamorous but cold image (they have not yet spoken) is an emblem of the one-way circuit of screen eroticism, however electric; it is no accident that Stewart, a dangerous somnambulist, continually drives on the wrong side of a twolane highway. When he follows Madeleine to a cemetery, Hitchcock's fog filter creates an explicitly dreamlike ambience, analogous to the filmviewing experience itself.

Kim Novak is literally a performer within the film: Madeleine is only pretending to be the wife, and her neurosis and "suicide" midway through the movie are staged in behalf of a plot to murder the real wife, with Stewart as the gulled witness. After Stewart rescues Madeleine from a "suicide attempt" in the bay, he takes her home, undresses the unconscious woman, and puts her to bed. He doesn't call her "husband" immediately; like an audience (or an onanist), he wants the image for himself. But Hitchcock denies the audience any view or suggestion of Stewart's deportment in that crucial scene; her underwear, however, is prominently displayed (after what fact?), and the audience's frustration is equal to Stewart's furtive needs, underscored by his coy first conversation with Madeleine after she regains consciousness, all perversely managed by Hitchcock. Barbara Bel Geddes, who pines for Stewart, designs brassieres; and empty brassieres, rather than breasts, are featured in the first half of vertigo- a psychological mis-en-scène and a booby-trap at the expense of viewers who had expected to see more of Kim Novak.

Some time after her seemingly successful suicide, Stewart meets Madeleine's ghostly image, reincarnated as Judy, a common red-haired working girl (Novak, of course, whose garish crimson lipstick clashes with her cheaply dyed hair). Their new relationship is stranger yet, and rear window's "What do you want of me?" resounds. Voyeurism is replaced by fetishism and, as Hitchcock told Truffaut, "a form of necrophilia."'1 Performance is once again the operative word: Judy must pretend not to know Stewart, who pretends she is Madeleine and literally directs her performance in that role. Like another sick man, Humbert by name, who tried to recreate a live creature in the image of a dead girl (his lost Riviera love), Stewart remakes Judy in Madeleine's image (clothes, hair, no, not that way; please stand over there).

Novak's woodenness as an actress is for once an asset; Stewart and his scheming friend variously create her, just as Hollywood (Harry Cohn in particular) tried to make poor Kim Novak into Rita Hayworth. The mental sets formed by screen eroticism are rigid enough, for Stewart prefers coolly contained Madeleine to Judy's beguiling, braless state, a telling touch predicated on our having perceived the earlier fetishistic details (breasts as things, an American tale familiar to all adolescents disguised as men). Stewart's transformation of Judy's common but sensual vitality into a vision of his dead love (a glamorous but Illusory being) telescopes and comments upon the psychology of audience fantasizing, the process through which women become "Kim Novak" (or whatever) by virtue of cosmetics and/or their partners' cranial cinema, producing a dead love indeed. Stewart overcomes his acrophobia but loses the girl, in a meaningfully terrifying scene: Madeleine/Judy plunges from the bell-tower in a lethal re-enactment of her mock-suicide; illusions are reality in their ability to destroy us, as Humbert proves.

"What do you want of me?" is a question asked by any popular entertainer. Of late, audiences have enjoyed Technicolored orgies of gore, as Ada's "canny" film director Victor Vitry demonstrates by retaining the pleasing footage of the accidental decapitation in his movie version of Veen's Letters from Terra (page 581). Hitchcock's frenzy is structured with such needs in mind. In the opening scene an attentive London crowd (an audience), dapper director Hitchcock among them, swiftly abandons a pompous, knighted government propagandist in order to peer down at a naked female corpse afloat in the Thames. A graphic and grisly on-screen rape-murder whets appetites further, but when the most important and sympathetic victim is lured to the killer's apartment, Hitchcock literally closes the door in the audience's face. With an excruciating slowness, the camera tracks, silently away from the door, down the staircase, through the building's front door, and into the street.

The effect here on the frustrated viewer-voyeur is truly stunning: the killer's teasingly inscrutable window and the prosaic, disquieting façade of the building mask- and reveal- far more than the viciousness of one psychopath, Because FRENZY is not LETTERS FROM TERRA OR STRAW DOGS, Hitchcock's screen is a tabula rasa for the nonce, onto which the audience must project its vision of violence, if that is its pleasure. "The Master of Suspense" (a dreadful, misleading cliché) formulates the audience's moral suspension. Anthony Perkins' motel peephole in psycho is a signal image: the absence of erotic on-screen violence after the famous shower murder of Janet Leigh (in itself a deceptive, teasing tour de force of film cutting, analogous to the "sex" exhibited early in Lolita), manipulates the audience in unexpected ways. One hopes they experience arrière-pensée; critics always do.

Where psycho ends with a psychiatric explanation, FRENZY stops short with an impersonal image of the crime itself, rather than a dramatization of the expected violent confrontation between betrayed friend and cornered criminal, thus denying a frenzied audience its "catharsis" (to employ the controversial, muddy line of the apologists for screen violence). Reversing the previous tracking movement away from the door, the final shot is a close-up of the empty steamer trunk (intended for the latest corpse), a tabula rasa of another sort- an empty anti-ending, a refusal to explain human behavior definitively. This suggests that Hitchcock has learned from his disciple Chabrol's landru, in which the wife-murderer's motives remain mysterious, in film-fiction as well as life; from novelist-theorizer-filmmaker Robbe-Grillet; or from Nabokov, whose Eye (1930, in Russian, literally The Spy), Despair (1936), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Lolita (1 955), and Pale Fire (1 962) parody the classic detective tale, the rational genre which supposes that "clues" will lead one to the truth (in the fullest sense) and that, once the criminal is identified, the closed little world of the story will be rid of malevolence and mystery. Those latter two words describe the universe of the thriller (in literature and film), as well as G. K. Chesterton's "The Absence of Mr. Glass" (1912), the important Father Brown shaggydog detective story that prefigures the techniques which reverse the Conan Doyle/Agatha Christie formulas.

Witness Robbe-Grillet's novel-length upending of Oedipus Rex: the first detective tale in Les Gommes (The Erasers, 1953). Or the way the hapless detectives, at the end of John Hawkes's The Lime Twig (1961), set out through the rainy gloom to discover "the particulars of this crime"- which is impossible, since the literal murderer is a horse (hoof prints?), and the truly killing factor, sexual reverie, cannot be outlawed. Or the disappearance of the cornered title criminal at the anti-ending of the French connection (point blank revisited" and simplified), who escapes, however i!logically, because he is finally an evil force rather than an individual man. Or Lo//fa, whose magically resilient incarnation of evil, Detective Trapp (Quilty), also resists bullets, refusing to surrender to the reader his (or killer Humbert's) ultimate raison d'être or literary "meaning."

Not by chance alone did Hitchcock telephone Nabokov from London during the winter of 1970, before he signed Anthony Shaffer to turn Arthur La Bern's Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square into FRENZY. "Yes, of course I know who you are, and I admire your work," Nabokov told Hitchcock, whose modest self-introduction was predicated on the assumption that a "high-brow" artist (another active child of 1899) would be ignorant of his existence. Hitchcock wanted Nabokov to do an original screenplay, but Nabokov declined because he was committed to his Transparent Things (1972), a ghost story and an eschatological thriller that employs many of the devices of the "suspense" and "mystery" genre, and ends violently, with the principal question left unanswered. "Actually, I've seen very little Hitchcock," says Nabokov, "but I admire his craftsmanship. I fondly recall at least one film of his, about someone named Harry." Why did Hitchcock think to ask him for a scenario, ten years after Nabokov's sole screen effort for Kubrick? "Oh, his humour noir is akin to my humour noir, if that's what it should be called," answered Nabokov. "Perhaps there are other reasons, too. I don't know. Do you?"

A "hole" early in the narrative line of Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur, published the same year as Lolita (1955), anticipates frenzy (and, in a way, vertigo) by also omitting the crucial scene in which a young girl has been tortured and murdered by, it would seem, a strange, itinerant traveler named Mathias. The vexing ellipsis is psychologically consistent with a psychopath's mental erasures or evasions, but since a sadistic killer is by definition no longer a voyeur, Robbe-Grillet's title may well allude to those readers who feel cheated by that "hole." No such complaints may be made about Robbe-Grillet's most cinematic performance, Projet pour une révolution dans New York (1970). Revolting in many ways, a vertiginous projection of very private needs in public places, Robbe-Grillet's scenario extends the idea of audience manipulation by monstrously developing the keyhole perspective of the bonnetted midget in FOOTLIGHT PARADE'S "Honeymoon Hotel" number, leaving the kiss, and susPENSE, and even PSYCHO far behind.

"The first scene goes very fast, "writes Robbe-Grillet in the opening paragraph. "Evidently it has already been rehearsed several times: everyone knows his part by heart"- everyone, that is, except the reader, whose part can be played in a number of ways. The other parts are drawn from the stock footage of detective thrillers and the greasy pages of pulp fiction and what paperback blurb-writers call "Modern Erotic Classic" (mad medicos, mysterious implementa, dames in chains). Foreign film distribution rights are sold, the narrator's house is outfitted with concealed movie cameras, and violent political, criminal, and sexual fantasies are activated before our eyes. A rangeof shifting masks-or serial selves-reveals, qualifies, and withdraws forbidden fields of vision and terrible, definitive self-knowledge. The "go-between" (as he is called) in all these underground activities is ubiquitous Ben-Said; at one point he literally enlists the narrator in criminal activity. A protean, Quilty-like presence and a potential cameraman at the Duk Duk Ranch, Ben-Said also appears masked as the reader's agent: a nearsighted and bald little locksmith-voyeur, kit in hand, to whom all keyholes are "orifices," the central link in an unholy alliance between author, characters, and readers. Private eyes all, they are ill-equipped to perceive what they think they have seen, but, as in Lo//fa and frenzy, perhaps shocked into self knowledge by their sense of what they had hoped to see.

Chabrol dramatized this process in his A double tour (freely translated as leda for its American release). In one intimate scene, the audience watches the bikini-clad maid walk langourously around her bedroom. The pleasure is ours as well as hers; she is the grand-daughter, as it were, of one of Sennett's nubile Bathing Beauties. When the camera moves back to frame her in the keyhole and then cuts to outside the door, where she is also being viewed by the family's son (who is among other things a murderer), one may feel uncomfortably crowded, trapped, and compromised- academic evidence that critic-director Chabrol, unlike Truffaut, has truly appropriated auteur Hitchcock's course.

By structuring claire's knee as an anti-thriller, Eric Rohmer (Chabrol's co-author of Hitchcock) suggests that Hitchcockian suspense techniques are not divorced from content. Rohmer's erotic comedy is composed of public parts: talk, narcissistic posturing, unrealized promises of sex and violence (Claire's sullen, jealous boy friend), spurious suspense (When will our hero grab the knee, and what will happen then?), more talk, inaction, anticlimax. That's all? That's what we've waited for this long? complained several red-blooded trapped consumers, unwilling to recognize or accept eroticism as a state of mind (its principal reality, alas). Claire's knee is of course a summary title, but, like Dr. John Ray's foreword to "Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male" (taken seriously by many readers), the title is also a mock comeon, a morally resonant parody of "sexy" movie titles and randy publicity campaigns.

In a witty 1948 essay on the outlaw (which acolytes Chabrol and Rohmer surely read), André Bazin views its "technique of provocation" as an "outrageous trick" on the audience as well as on the censor who had long delayed the film's release. "Finally, at last . . . You can see," proclaims a famous outlaw poster, as though a miracle were in the offing. Bazin points to the disparity between its posters (Jane Russell with lifted skirts and generous décolleté) and the film itself: breasts alone, but not even at their best, a decorous handkerchief placed wherever too much cleavage might show (Le Voyeur's narrative gap, Hitchcock's tabula rasa, Claire's isolated knee). "It was the censorship that turned [the outlaw] into an erotic film," states Bazin. "Gregg Toland must have had great fun lighting the throat of Jane Russell, scrupulously focusing on that milk-white patch barely hollowed by a shadow, whose mere presence had the frustrated spectators dithering with resentment"12which also describes the disappointment of those readers (learned and otherwise) who put down Lolita because of Humbert's willful reticence.

Like Hitchcock, Robbe-Grillet, Rohmer, and Chabrol at their best (Howard Hughes is not yet an auteur), Nabokov carefully sets up his audience for such severe letdowns, drawing too on its previous training, its indiscriminate immersion in trash, a helpless condition inasmuch as trash and poshlost" are everywhere- a subliminal presence, an invisible virus. Supremely self-conscious literary artists have nevertheless been done in by base materials; Robbe-Grillet's pulpy La Maison de Rendez-Vous (1 965) reads like Sax Rohmer revisited. And our best popular artists have unconsciously succumbed to poshlost' (Hitchcock's "Freudian" spellbound). But mandarin Nabokov has been able to exercise tight control, injecting his doses of trash sparingly, a preventative medicine employed to the advantage of the work and the thoughtful reader who has been caught up in, but not defeated by, Nabokov's game. "This is only [sic] a game," says Humbert (page 22).

"We're all playing games," says the mad narrator of The Players and the Game, a perfect example of the way popular genres (crime thrillers, sci-fi) have self-consciously expropriated "high-brow" modes. "Do you know who I am?" asks Symons' narrator, '"I'm Bela Lugosi.'" No, says his companion ("Bonnie Parker"), he is Dracula. "She was absolutely right . . . Dracula's played a different game, a sex game, with other people, but here sex just does not come into it,"14 This is as acute a description as any of Lolita's tantalizing "sex game" with "other people" (its readers). It involves foreplay but no coitus. It is a game that allows Nabokov to highlight his major themes: the limitations of language, the nature of love and loss, the deathly cul-de-sac of nostalgia- a theme especially relevant to our present condition.

Recent magazine articles on "nostalgia" collectors have featured several unintentionally terrifying photographs. One pictured a Lana Turner devotee seated in a windowless room, a Gothic playpen whose walls and ceilings were completely papered with Lana images. Another photo exhibited the premier Mickey Mouse collector in his attic retreat, surrounded by every Mickey icon and toy known to man or boy. Here we can see nostalgists snug in the regressive womb or morgue of popular culture-"drunk," as Humbert has said, "on the impossible past."