Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Barry Lyndon (#62)

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Favorites - Barry Lyndon (#62)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Barry Lyndon (1975/UK/dir. Stanley Kubrick) appeared at #62 on my original list.

Due to technical difficulties, this post was delayed nearly a week. However, the next entry, on Apocalypse Now, will go up later today, and the rest of the entries in the series will go up at the usual time (every Friday at 7am PST).

What it is • The fortune, good and bad, of Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) - who will not become Barry Lyndon until the halfway point of the film - is framed by a pair of duels. I don't mean the mock-duel in which Barry "kills" a romantic rival, a farcical hoax intended to drive him from his ancestral home. The duel that actually opens Barry Lyndon, seen from a distance, is between his father and the anonymous assailant who kills him, condemning the unseen boy to a life of instability only exacerbated by later circumstances. The brief scene provides a quintessential example of that classically Kubrickian style, coldly distant in its formal viewpoint, fatalistic in its content. The second duel, however, is something else entirely. Photographed in a variety of close-ups and mediums (along with some striking wide shots to convey the cavernous space in which Barry and his stepson Lord Bullingdon, played by Leon Vitali, face off), this duel emphasizes the choices made by the participants, their role in shaping their own destiny. One decision in particular, which results in financial and physical disaster, may also be a true moral victory in a film hardly full of such accomplishments. None of this is broadcast in any obvious way; indeed the film's most crucial implications are often undercut by the droll narrator or obscured by the distractions (however subtly complementary) of the gorgeous sets, costumes, and locations. Many viewers conclude that the film has no emotional core and is simply a series of pretty pictures. This sumptuous, stately, and decidedly unrushed period piece was not particularly well-received on release and even when I first saw it three decades later, my perception of its reputation suggested that it would not compare to Kubrick's more vividly iconic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange. I finally watched it during a marathon of the director's small but impressive body of work. Within less than a day, I had watched all three hours of it a second time.

Why I like it •
I was transfixed by this movie, not bored or restless for a second. Yes, every shot in the film could be framed and placed on a gallery wall, the interiors photographed by candlelight with NASA-designed lenses and exteriors captured with an awe-inspiring majesty in Kubrick's last major foray outside of a studio. And as always, the director's precision is unrivaled: the timing of his cuts, the actors' gestures and those indelible zooms (which shouldn't work nearly so well as they do) convey a restrained grace found more frequently in dance's stylization than cinema's verisimilitude. But beneath the film's surface placidity, beyond its formal elegance, even aside from the astonishing pettiness of the characters and events populating this elevated environment, there is a sense of inescapable poignancy. I'm not sure I could articulate this initially, but I remember talking to my father shortly after seeing the movie and the first thing he remembered was "a heartbreaking scene between Ryan O'Neal and his cousin." That scene is also quite funny, but he was right. Underneath its apparently callow adolescent romance is a real sensitivity and feeling of loss. Barry's wounded, yearning innocence remains a palpable undercurrent through the rest of the movie. Whenever I rewatch the movie, I always feel that my memory has played a trick on me. I remember Barry as a deeply flawed but nonetheless sympathetic figure, yet his onscreen behavior (and certainly the narrators' intimations about his motivations and inner life) is usually duplicitous, self-serving, callous, and cruel. From a certain perspective, the second half of the film could take the form of a fairy-tale with Freudian undertones, in which the evil stepfather is finally banished by an abused, orphaned boy who reclaims the kingdom and his beloved mother (Marisa Berenson). In that sense, Barry Lyndon deeply resembles The Shining, with Barry as a more superficially contained Jack Torrance. Both Jack and Barry are essentially lowly losers, who yearn to be part of a higher society and will do whatever it takes to land themselves there. I spoke about this recently with the film critic and video essayist Tope Ogundare, whose excellent video "The pains of being The Caretaker" spurred many of these thoughts. As he pointed out, however, Barry finally has a tragic, realistic self-awareness about his precarious position that the bitter, deluded Jack does not. In fact, after watching the film again tonight I stumbled across Mark Crispin Miller's essay from 1975 which convincingly (if at times a bit too defensively) argues that Barry is a noble soul, misunderstood by every other character and misrepresented by the unreliable voiceover. The film never lets us know exactly what to think or feel, even when it seems to overtly do just that. Kubrick's art, often described as cool or cerebral, is in fact entirely instinctive; it works directly on our nervous system rather than our rational mind, communicating sensations that are hard to explain. Six months after I made this list, I saw a beautiful print of Barry Lyndon on the big screen with a full audience and it became my favorite Kubrick film. If I was composing these rankings today, it would probably go much higher. Not that it matters; fundamentally, as the film itself states about its long-deceased ensemble, all true masterpieces are equal.

How you can see it • Barry Lyndon is on Netflix. A clip is featured at 4:53 in "Pray For Us Sinners", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.

What do you think? • Do you feel the film has a heart, or is the blood that runs in its veins ice-cold? Is Barry a sympathetic figure? Should he be? What about Lord Bullingdon? Does the first half of the movie, tracing the events which shape Barry, render him more sympathetic and creates a contrast with someone like Jack? Aside from The Shining, what other Kubrick films do you see a strong thematic (or, for that matter, narrative or stylistic) similarity with? How does the film compare or contrast with other costume dramas set in the eighteenth century? In particular, to what extent was Kubrick commenting upon - or critiquing - the legacy of Tom Jones? Have you read Thackery's novel, and if so how does this adaptation develop or betray its ideas? Do you think Kubrick's liberties or fidelities to Barry Lyndon reflect a larger pattern in his work (much of which was also adapted from high-profile source material)? And of course, what's the real aspect ratio?

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Previous week: 42nd Street (#63)

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