I found Stephen Smith, who presented this investigation into Vladimir Nabokov and his relationship to his infamous novel Lolita, an irritating prick. His opening premise that he can’t talk about Lolita to his friends without their prissy censure, explains much of what is wrong with Smith’s approach to documentary-making. When dealing with a subject as important, as controversial, and as difficult as Nabokov, what Smith or his friends think is irrelevant.
‘I want to be able to carry this around in public,’ Smith exclaims. ‘Read bits out to friends. Maybe not take it out at a parents’ evening, but feel comfortable with it—but I can’t. And that’s crazy fifty years after little Lolita first appeared.’
The problem is Smith’s petite bourgeois values infect everything he says. ‘What kind of person lives in a hotel,’ he asks, almost in sub-Lady Bracknell, before venturing onto what really interests him—the ‘conga-line of young women shimmering through the pages, particularly the latter pages, of Nabokov.’ He then tries to find the ‘missing link’ between Nabokov’s private life and that of his ‘aroused anti-heroes’.
Smith attempts to create a sense of Nabokov as some shady character (perhaps on-the-run?), hiding out in hotels, so that he can postulate about him being a dirty old man. He also asks trivial and facetious questions. For example, his opener to the bar man at the Montreux Palace, where the writer lived in his later years, is not ‘what sort of man was Nabokov?’ but rather, ‘was he a snob?’ which he followed-up with ‘did he tip?’
Whether intentional or not, Smith wanders round this whole documentary like some second-fiddle Nabokovian character, sweaty, charmless, petty, narrow-minded, and grossly bourgeois. It would be funny, if Smith did not clog-up so much of what should be interesting with his trite psycho-analysis (what would Nabokov make of that?) and his penchant for stating the-bleedin’-obvious. His conclusion is where he should have started, but then this would have been a documentary about why Stephen Smith thinks about Nabokov the way he does, and that would never have filled an hour.
What is good about this documentary is the original archive and interviews with Nabokov, and if you want to read the great man discussing Lolita and much more, then check out this excellent interview from the Paris Review