A Couple on Kubrick: Barry Lyndon (1975) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Couple on Kubrick: Barry Lyndon (1975)

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Would we look so favorably on our rogues if they were delivered to our screens with half the honesty of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon?  This was two years before Star Wars, before Harrison Ford redeemed a full film of selfishness and interstellar racism with one line and a quick explosion.  He was an opportunist and is revered, to a degree, but Barry is the essence of the rogue.

His name barely matters, he exists in a sea of opportunity and displacement every scenario he finds himself in.  It's no wonder he turns into such a selfish mess when he finally has a place to call his own, from country to quiet villa he was looking out for no one but himself.

It's this kind of severe focus I wish Kubrick used during A Clockwork Orange.  That film felt to me ten years ago, as is does now, of a teenage kid unable to get his way and deciding to use his talent to tell rape jokes instead of making a point.  Barry Lyndon is the sort of mature work we've seen develop since 2001.  Even Dr. Strangelove, and especially Lolita, suffered from this kind of teenage mentality.  But in Barry Lyndon he brings his attention to detail to a full historical epic and does not spare the times from his analysis.

This is the only film in Kubrick's main body of work I had yet to see, and I approached with some hesitance.  The last time Kubrick tried to make an epic period piece the result was Spartacus, a boring film with two fantastic bookends and a dash of dark irony.  There's little irony to be seen in Barry Lyndon, he is not a hero when he begins and certainly isn't one when he fades into obscurity.  But it's those in-between details that really get my cinephile going.

The visuals of Barry Lyndon are, to put it mildly, stupidly beautiful.  As in, I am stupefied at the lengths Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott went to capture their version of the pre-Victorian 1700's.  Every shot of the film looks like a luxurious soft oil painting.  The landscapes are captured in all of their sublime glory, with constant background reminders that if it's not the army in the castle which is coming to kill you, the venomous bog or treacherous fall might.  Leave it to Kubrick to find a lens used to photograph space missions to show just how wonderful natural light can be on our natural landscape.

Kubrick keeps his trademark dark humor, even if he sacrifices some of the irony we've seen in previous films.  I love the way the landscape morphs to fit the mood but sacrifices none of the authenticity of the surroundings.  A deadly battlefield is as likely to house a secluded swamp just as much as a opulent castle gives way to a desolate field.  It's this sort of hyper-reality of location - we've all been somewhere which gives us pause to ask a simple question of, "Where?"  But Kubrick pushes it into the near magically fantastic while still keeping a firm hand on the reality of the surroundings.

My initial hesitance did not yield such observations about the film.  The shortcomings of Spartacus were still too fresh and applicable here.  Too many familiar archetypes were on display - the lip-smacking evildoer, the stoic hero, the heaving damsel.  But as Kubrick unraveled each of these cliches (believe me, I was rooting for Quinn to kill Barry long before he got involved in all of that hateful nonsense with Lady Lyndon) the cinematic reality started to take form.

The historical epoch is a joke, and the narration informs us of such the whole time.  My favorite shot of the film, aside from those lovely candles that illuminate his guardians face, is the final joke during the epilogue.  Despite all the struggles of the people we've come to know and love, they all fell prey to the great equalizer of all historical epochs and died.

In a way, Kubrick's grandstanding in visuals and score (especially during those bombastic opening moments) highlights this fact all too well.  We recreate the histories of the past in dramatic reinterpretations, but to what purpose?  Bad people will be forever horrible, the good will be largely forgotten, and our legacy will be genetic and unconsciously relived until the line is severed.

It's the sort of thought that makes me think Kubrick always chuckled during his darker nights.  Barry Lyndon may start off as a bit of a meandering film, a sort of Linklater does pre-Victoria, but it lands with a remarkable thud.

I think I'm about done here, love.  Did this work for you a little better?

Well, sweetie, you brought up an interesting point with regards to questioning the reason why historical epochs are made, because the film seems to hold that sentiment. We see a young man go from canoodling with his cousin, to shooting Quinn (who was my favorite character in the story), to finaglinghis way into the upper echelon of society via an opportunistic marriage, to having his life not turn outthe way he planned, and yet the movie does nothing in the way of having an opinion about the events.We watch Barry go about his life and the movie never forces you to have an opinion on him one way or another.

In a way, it is almost refreshing to watch a movie where the events take place and the usual emotionally manipulative cinematic elements (e.g. music, lighting,) are not forcing me into the director’s opinion on how the audience should feel. Now, that’s not to say that emotionally manipulative elements are a bad thing, but it is sometimes enjoyable to watch a movie that is willing to let the audience breathe and take in the movie. The best way I can describe this type of cinematic presentation is invested detachment: Any event or character (and action) in the movie are neither glorified nor vilified, but, rather, they are studied and presented in a neutral state.

Another example of this type of invested detachment I can think of is Badlands (1973), directed by Terrence Malick. The audience goes along the murder spree of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, but Malick does not focus on the characters’ actions specifically, but rather presents the characters and their actions as is, while at the same time letting the events melt into the gorgeous scenery, giving the movie an overall pensive mood even during kidnappings and murders. The audience can fully invest into the story on a purely cerebral level while being in awe of its beauty.

Kubrick does the exact thing that Malick did, and I am beyond glad he did. What could have been a 3 hour melodrama that would have worn out its welcome quickly and left me with a melodrama hangover was instead a properly-paced movie that eased the audience into the time period while maintaining the rigid social atmosphere of the time. (Granted, it was a little difficult to be completely transported, but when the story is already 3 hours long, some establishing time during [Redmond] Barry’s upbringing can disappear.)

Kubrick’s rigid and fanatical attention to detail made him the perfect director for Barry Lyndon because he could do what few directors can do in a movie based in the Georgian/Victorian era, which is establish the look of the time period without resorting to gaudiness and tricks. It is rare for a director to really establish the era without it being a distraction, but Kubrick normalized the silliness of powdered wigs, pantaloons, and lead face powder, and instead let the stunning architecture and landscapes be just as important as the ever engaging story.

It’s odd that I am praising this movie so much since the story is not exactly anything new, but Kubrick’s invested detachment let me lose myself into the story and the characters. Barry Lyndon was much more enjoyable than I could have ever expected.

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Next week, a long-awaited Simpsons reference.

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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  1. A good write up of a masterpiece of cinema. A great essay I like of Barry Lyndon here: http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id53.html

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