Woody Allen obviously hasn't learned much from the movies. Or else he hasn't seen the right ones. Hollywood has provided an impressive string of moral lessons on the dangers young women present to the old men who would pursue them.
It was a tragic affair when we first heard of it, and it is a tragic affair now. A pretentious middle-aged intellectual sets up house with an attractive woman a few years his junior. Alas, their relationship eventually sours as he becomes obsessed by his wife's beautiful but cerebrally impoverished teenage daughter. One day, his wife stumbles upon a supremely damaging piece of physical evidence confirming her suspicion that her mate has fallen in love with her child.
An eruption occurs. Soon, the older man is involved in a wild affair with the young girl, but he is assailed by pointed inquiries from his concerned neighbors, and is even awakened in the middle of the night by a call from a total stranger demanding to know more details about his seemingly immoral relationship with his young mistress. His reputation is destroyed, his career lies in ruins, as friend and foe alike condemn his immoral behavior. The verdict of society is clear: James Mason (Professor Humbert) had no right to take up with his wife's daughter by a previous marriage, Sue Lyon (Lolita). As boring and conventional and thoroughly bourgeois as it may have been, Mason should have done the right thing and remained true to Shelley Winters (Mrs. Hayes) till death did them part.
It has been 31 years since Stanley Kubrick directed his groundbreaking, highly controversial Lolita, yet the screen version of Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel has lost none of its power to shock, amaze and, yes, even horrify. Of course, the film's message is particularly relevant this year because of last summer's shocking revelations about Woody Allen's infidelity to his longtime companion Mia Farrow, a breach of faith culminating in his apparently sordid affair with his longtime girlfriend's daughter Soon-Yi Previn.
It is not our intention here to judge Mr. Allen or Ms. Previn, nor to draw unflattering comparisons between the often eccentric behavior of Ms. Farrow and her somewhat more rotund screen counterpart, Shelley Winters, which may have contributed to the Messrs. Mason's and Allen's decidedly idiosyncratic behavior. But we would be most remiss as film connoisseurs and auteur buffs if we did not underscore the disturbing similarities between the events depicted in Lolita and the events that have actually transpired in the Allen-Farrow contretemps. And we would be even more remiss if we did not wonder aloud how it was possible for an individual as steeped in cinematic lore as Mr. Allen to ignore the moral warning signs that had been planted firmly in his path by a film such as Lolita and others of this ilk--black-and-white pictures that regularly played at the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Carnegie Hall Cinema, The Thalia, the Regency and all the other arty Greenwich Village Him houses where Allen spent his formative years.
The arts--and yes, that term does include motion pictures--are the deepest repositories of a civilizations values, guideposts planted on the Highway of Life to help the young and the untutored find their moral bearings(obviously, there are exceptions to this rule--Russ Meyer, David Lynch). Motion pictures such as Lolita are not mere diversions, mere entertainments, mere amusements; oh no, they serve a higher purpose. And what is that purpose if not to guide the viewer toward the One, the True and the Beautiful? Their purpose, their raison d'etre is not merely to help a bored filmgoer while away a few stolen hours. Their purpose is to warn the viewer to eschew the crass, the vulgar, the base. Their purpose is to warn the viewer to keep one's eyes on the prize, one's chin up, one's nose to the grindstone, one's eyes on the road, one's hands upon the wheel. Conversely, their purpose is to warn the viewers to keep one's hands off one's wife's or girlfriend's daughter, and at all costs to avoid public liaisons with obvious jailbait.
By choosing to ignore the lesson James Mason learned in Lolita, Woody Allen has displayed a truly remarkable naivete. For that lesson is simple: May/December romances are to be avoided at all costs. They are messy. They are difficult. People's hearts get broken. Unwanted babies get born. Alimony and child-support litigation can occur. And sometimes the man ends up in jail.