Lo.Lee.Ta. - A Montage Narrative

The Narrator as Cinematographer in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

31 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Russian Formalism
2.1 Principles of Formalism
2.2 Russian Formalist Influences in Lolita

3 Montage Culture as Modernist Culture
3.1 The Basics of Editing
3.2 Introduction to Montage Philosophy
3.3 Montage's Modernist Notions
3.4 Features and Deployment of Montage

4 Lo.Lee.Ta. -A Montage Narrative
4.1 Nabokovand Film
4.2 Americanitis and European Consciousness: The Functions of Film in Lolita..
4.3 Director's Cut: Humbert's Roles and the Role ofthe Cinematographer
4.4 The Kuleshov Effect
4.5 Lo.Lee.Ta. - A Montage Narrative

5 Conclusion


Works cited
Internet resources

1 Introduction

In an experiment, Russian film maker and film theorist Lev Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine was combined with various other shots, among them a bowl of soup, a woman, and shot of a child in a coffin. The film was shown to an audience who believed the actor expressed different emotions with each situation, when in fact, the footage of Mosjoukine was the same shot repeated over and over again. Even though, Mosjoukine did not see the shots, and hence, could not react to either of them, the viewers were convinced to witness the adequate emotions. Thus, the viewer filled in the blanks and saw the expression, although there was none.

The impact of this experiment was called the Kuleshov effect. It illustrates the significance offilm editing as well as the importance ofthe viewer. The Kuleshov effect brings together the thought of the cinematographer and the idea the viewer creates in his own mind. The result of this co-production is a whole new meaning that can refer to something that was denoted before, but can also be unrelated to it.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita manifests a lively dialogue between literature and cinema. But how and to what extent has montage philosophy influenced this work? In the following paper, I aim to show that Humbert Humbert, the central character's presentation of the story appears in a cinematic manner as his first-person narrative makes use ofvarious means offilm technique. Moreover, his position towards people, particularly Lolita, bears resemblance to the relationship between a director and his actors. In other words, in Lolita, we follow the protagonist as he directs the story and the people around him.

In a structural analysis, I would like to answerthe question whetherfilm and literary narrative subside in Lolita. How is film in general used for the development of the characters and to what extent does montage technique qualify to fit in the novel? I will outline the principles of Russian formalism at first and then explain their influence on Lolita. Subsequently, I will illustrate the practical as well as the theoretical side of montage theory, before I exemplify the deployment offilm techniques in Nabokov's novel. Finally, how is the construction and perception of characters manipulated with the help offilmic methods?

2 Russian Formalism

2.1 Principles of Formalism

Russian formalism was an influential Russian school of literary criticism between 1915 and 1930 coined by the work ofscholars such as Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, and Boris Eichenbaum. In general, formalists try to explore the nature of literariness (literatumost) and its structural behaviour in which verbal art is created. The results lead to assumptions about finding the same structures in art, apart from literature, particularly in questions on the poetics ofcinema. [1]

Russian formalism is marked by four major characteristics: literariness, language, form, and methodology. Or, to put it more precisely, the main formalist features are 1) the main focus is on the literariness about literature (immanence), 2) language is treated as the basic material to work with, 3) form is considered as a method or structure, and 4) there has to be a scientific stringency in methodology.[2]

Literary theorist Stefan Speck describes formalist reading as determination from below; that means all the elementary parts build a whole, the so-called above. The above, in turn, is simply the result of meshing all the parts from below. In other words, the focus is on language which provides a basis for further examination. Therefore, formalists simply analyse the material - namely language - only because they believe the literariness can be found there.[3] The determination's direction is relative to the level of work; that is - for the determination from below - the elements themselves are fundamentally significant for the creation of the whole thing or the lack thereof.[4]

Moreover, Russian formalism deals with the processes of algebraization and defamiliarization. By algebraization we understand an algebraic method ofthought, where objects are not seen as what they are as a whole, but recognized by their major features. Viktor Shklovsky describes this process as seeing an object as if it was put in a sack; we can see its shape and the general outline, nevertheless the essence of it remains undiscovered and unnoticed. Hence, Shklovsky argues that the over­automatization of an object offers the most economic way of perception. Furthermore, objects can either be classified by one single characteristic - like for example a number - or they can be represented as formula that is not perceived.[5]

The second feature, defamiliarization, (ostraneniye, more literally, 'estrangement') means to change forms, enhance their complexity so that we perceive them in a process ofaugmented difficulty and length. This is based on the assumption of perception being a highly aesthetic action that has to be sustained. According to Shklovsky, art's purpose is to recreate life, and experience it more aesthetically, and in particular, to look at objects from an artistic perspective. Nevertheless, the object itself does not matter, as it is irrelevant.[6]

Moreover, whereverform can be found, generally, there is defamiliarization. The artist's purpose is to capture the vision or rather the effects of that deautomized perception; so the work of an author is produced in an artistic way in which perception is held up in order to achieve a great slowness of perception. In this manner, objects can be perceived slowly, meaning a perception in continuity - and not one in a spatial context.[7]

2.2 Russian Formalist Influences in Lolita

In his chapter on Lolita, literary theorist Michael Glynn is concerned with the function and potential of art, as well as with its connection to delusion. He argues, that the novel deploys the Shklovsky's model and comes to the conclusion that art provides the main character, Humbert Humbert, with delusion, but is also able of dissolving it. Humbert is presented as a hybrid with a consciousness of antithetical epistemologies; when referring to other individuals his cognition is “perniciously, falsifyingly Symbolist”[8]. In Humbert's perception, people appear as metaphors, as he is oblivious of seeing them as human beings in their own realities:

Humbert's mind manifests a Formalist responsiveness to the strange beauty of the thing-in-itself”. In his presentation of Humbert, Nabokov appears also to have been influenced by the Bergsonian/Shklovskyite notion ofthe rigid, automatized consciousness. As a kind ofautomaton himself, Humbert views others as automata, as determinate entities who shall do his bidding.[9]

Hence, deluded Humbert never questions himself, thus he believes to know what he is, whereas Lolita functions as his creation, his work of art.[10] In his claim, to his art, Humbert is able to vindicate his obsession; here, art functions as a refuge. He claims to have the special vision of an artist, as he creates the phenomenon of the nymphet[11], originated from his childhood love, Annabel. Thus, Humbert's obsession with Lolita, his nymphic creature, prevents him from seeing Dolores Haze as an autonomous figure. Through his main character “Nabokov tragicomically inverts the Bergsonian/Shklovskyite notion ofart as dispelling delusion”[12].

Only in his artistic vision, a mere counter-reality created by the narrator's language, Humbert and Lolita can exist together. Humbert's linguistic inventiveness serves as a base for the nymphet-ideal; caught in his rhetoric (“madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other”[13] ), he turns child abuse into a love affair. Seemingly unaware of his active role, he even believes, Lolita was the one who seduced him which is unsurprising, as her nature, according to Humbert, is demoniac.[14] Nevertheless, Humbert's narrative is not only a product of his delusion, it also forms it.[15]

Another function of art is found in the way Humbert conveys his emotions. His style is characterized by the deployment of onomatopoeia and “the use of sibilance [...]; the hint ofthe infernal: 'abyss', and 'serpentine'; the use of syntactical parallelism, that old friend ofthe rhetorician: 'absence . .. absence'; the overall elegiac tone that reaches a sorrowful hopeless crescendo”[16] From an elevated position (that is, the position of an artist), Humbert achieves a moral state in which his mistakes are not reconsidered objectively. Also, artful language can be seen as a rhetorical device that is there to seduce the reader. On the one hand, the “special effects” highlight the literariness but they are also able to cloud the reader'sjudgement, on the other hand.[17]

Furthermore, Glynn deals with Humbert's symbolism, strongly represented in the sphere of human relationships. Charlotte, for example, functions as an instrument that grants him access to Lolita. Simultaneously, she is able to refuse Humbert access:

[...] Humbert struggles to discern “a dim first version of Lolita's outline.” Even during his moments of intimacy with Charlotte, especially at such times, Humbert realizes her as simply an imperfect analogue: “It was still a nymphet's scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowth of dark decaying forests.” Humbert is able to value Dolores Haze not as a material girl but as a metaphor for his own Lolita, who is herself a version of his Ur- nymph, Annabel Leigh.

Hence, Dolores functions as a symbol of a symbol, whereas her actual personality is not realized by Humbert. All he can comprehend, is beyond his sacrament of “nymphean reality”.[18]

3 Montage Culture as Modernist Culture

3.1 The Basics of Editing

Montage is a major part offilm culture at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in Russia, even though it was developed in other countries during the same period as well. In general, montage is understood as a technique of editing a series of shots [19] in order to create an intensified sequence with regard to time, space or information. The use of montage can denote a certain passage oftime within a sequence, or, as it is common practice in Soviet montage theory, it can convey a symbolic meaning.

In Film Technique and Film Acting, Russian director and theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin illustrates the technical side of montage, that is editing. He summarizes the main principles of it in the following aspects: symbolism, contrast, parallelism, simultaneity and leitmotif.

Symbolism. A method of connecting two scenes is to create a symbolic link.[20] Especially when referred to a political idea, symbolism is often used. This could be a situation in which the authorwants to call attention to violence or injustice by cutting between two scenes comparing the decay of an object to the death of a human being or a spilled glass of red wine to a bleeding nose.

Contrast. A contrast is shown by cutting between two scenarios that are different in order to emphasise an antagonism respectively two extreme oppositions like wealth and poverty by alternating scenes of a family sitting on a well-laid table and starving people living rough.[21]

Parallelism. Another principle of editing is showing parallel features in several scenes. These scenes only seem to be unrelated but can be connected all of a sudden through montage techniques, for example, when one sees a pig on a farm followed by a scene in a restaurant where someone is eating a pork chop. The cut between those two scenes creates an association in our minds focused on the pig and the subsequent pork product.[22]

Simultaneity. Simultaneity is a way of showing two events happening at the same time[23] by switching between two scenes in which time is running simultaneously. This method of creating a situation of a culmination ofsuspense is used, for instance, in a scene with a bomb which is on the verge of exploding. First, the ticking time bomb is shown, so the viewer knows there are only minutes or seconds left to disarm the bomb. Shortly after, we see the hero on his way to prevent an explosion and save the person tied to the bomb/the people within the building/the world. Now, switching between the shot of the countdown of the bomb and the shot of the approaching hero demonstrates the exact simultaneity of events, as it is often presented through split screens.

Leitmotif. By leitmotif or leading motif a theme is meant that is reiterating throughout the whole film. The leitmotif creates a visual sign system that encodes the occurrence of important persons or events. This can be a musical theme that hints at the hero's entrance, a place or colour that reminds the protagonist of a traumatic event, or special key scene that announces a dangerous situation.[24]

3.2 Introduction to Montage Philosophy

Montazhnoe myshlenie - a term that is often used as an equivalent to montage philosophy and the montage principle - describes a set oftechniques involving film and theatre, photography, and literature that engages both the author's and the reader's minds.[25] Montage offers a mutual interaction within the sign systems, it presents views about the culture's languages in its entirety because it can be discerned simultaneously in different arts, in different systems of signs, and in many different kinds of texts.[26]

Above all, a montage text is fragmentary, it can be seen as composition made ofseveral separable parts, a principle that is based on the alternation between the author's fragmentation and the reader's integration. This understanding of montage is called intersemiotic. In a montage text, the elements as such carry potential meanings, and they acquire theirfinal meaning in parallel with corresponding elements. The general meaning of the text is created in the reader's mind by reconstructing the connections between the elements ofthe text. Thus, montage texts are often heterogeneous texts which the reader has to put in relation in orderto produce a general meaning.[27] [28] Russian montage theory comprises many different models that strongly engage in this idea, among them cinematographer Sergej Eisenstein's communication model, I will introduce in the following chapter.

3.3 Montage's Modernist Notions

The earliest aims of Eisenstein's work are closely related to propaganda. Hence, he focuses on making the most powerful impression possible on the reader, with the help of different stimuli, orwhat he calls the montage ofattraction.[28] Eisenstein emphasises the active role of the reader which in itself, is a purely modernist idea about the production of a work. According to Eisenstein's theory, a work of art is always a process between the author and the reader. In his work, the author breaks down his idea into many pieces, from which the reader, on the basis of the depiction, has to re-compose the idea that the author had in mind.[29] In Eisenstein's opinion, montage can be compared to the structure of the Japanese language. In Japanese, verbs are built from juxtapositions. So, for example, one can compose the idea of to cry by connecting the terms that are representing water and eye. Analogously, the same principle can be applied for the composition of to sing, that is made out of mouth and bird. In other words, as a result of the juxtaposition of words, there is a third element that is not given by the author, but has to be detected by the reader first.[30]


[1] Herbert Eagle, Russian Formalist Film Theory (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1981), 2.

[2] Stefan Speck, Von Šklovskij zu de Man: zur Aktualität formalistischer Literaturtheorie. (Munich, Wilhelm Fink, 1997), 7.

[3] “Kennzeichnend für formalistische Theorien scheint eigentlich jene Art des Lesens zu sein, die ich mit einem Begriffvon Hansen-Löve als “Determination von unten” bezeichne: “unten” sind die elementaren Bestandteile, “oben” das aus diesen zusammengesetzte und verwobene Ganze. Wenn die Formalisten sich aufdie Untersuchung des (elementaren) Materials, der Sprache, und der darauf angewendeten Verfahren konzentrieren, so deshalb, weil sie das Literarische gerade dort vermuten. Das heißt also: die Sprache bestimmt die Literatur; Sinn und Bedeutung sind zum einen Teil ein bloßer Vorwand für die Anwendung von Verfahren [...].” In: Speck, 7/8.

[4] Speck, 19

[5] Viktor Shklovsky, Art as Technique. http://www.vahidnab.com/defam.htm 23 June 2012.

[6] Shklovsky.

[7] Shklovsky.

[8] Michael Glynn, Vladimir Nabokov. Bergsonian and Russian formalist influences in his novels (NewYorkand Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 99.

[9] Glynn, 99.

[10] Glynn, 99/100.

[11] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London: Penguin, 2011), 15.

[12] Glynn, 100.

[13] Nabokov, Lolita, 10.

[14] “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers [sic], twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac) [...].” In: Nabokov, Lolita, 15.

[15] Glynn, 100.

[16] Glynn, 101.

[17] Glynn, 101/102.

[18] Glynn, 102/103.

[19] In film making, a shot is defined as the part between two cuts.

[20] Vsevolod Pudovkin, Film Technique and Film Acting, (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 77.

[21] Pudovkin, Film Technique, 75.

[22] Pudovkin, Film Technique, 76.

[23] Pudovkin, Film Technique, 77.

[24] Pudovkin. Film Technique, 77/78.

[25] Tomi Huttunen, Montage Culture.

http://www.helsinki.fi/venaia/e-materiaali/mosaiikki/en3/th3 en.pdf 23 June 2012,1.

[26] Huttunen, 1.

[27] Huttunen, 2/3.

[28] Huttunen, 4.

[29] Huttunen, 4.

[30] Huttunen, 11.

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Lo.Lee.Ta. - A Montage Narrative
The Narrator as Cinematographer in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
HS Vladimir Nabokov
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, Anglistik, Amerikanistik;, Literaturwissenschaft;, Filmwissenschaft;, Montage, Editing, Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Kuleshov Effekt, Russischer Formalismus, Humbert Humbert
Quote paper
Irina Kirova (Author), 2012, Lo.Lee.Ta. - A Montage Narrative, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/207641


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