Barry Lyndon


Barry Lyndon is about the death of feeling. It’s also about Stanley Kubrick. He made a silent film with sound.

In the 18th century, a boy becomes a man. Innocence is lost, money is made — lives are ruined. Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is a cog in the painting that traps him. He moves to his fate. Tableaux framed (where man is part of the grand scheme) accounts for still life, a soul cage.

At the end, Barry is bankrupt, financially and spiritually. The movie is about the failure of humanoids, the dumbness of suppression. You can’t take the beauty from the sadness.

And it shares something with Kubrick in that he, too, was a slave to myth, and perfection. Most critics are bent on writing about Kube the legend, to the detriment of his films. New York scribes reviewed their idea of him. And yet, because he failed to gad about for his art, because he left the Hollywood mill, he was termed a recluse, a cynic — the anal cook of modern film who loved “things,” not people.

Kubrick was a people person. Neither misogynistic nor cold1, his films were emotional. He did not take hours to set up a shot. He did not hate actors. He worked actors to death because they did not know their lines. Complete grasp of character was assumed. He was just as literary as he was visual. We know this.2 He loved filmmaking — which of course merits shame. As if the like of film (his in particular) is bad: For this medium, the host of all mediums, no detail is too small.

Kubrick was too smart for his own good, too hip. Everything came to him; little was shunned. America he loved, but England he could work in, live in, grow in. It was a matter of economics. He was a talented s**t, but he was disciplined — corpulent, no. He aimed to get it right. He did not laze around.

They overlap, but each film stands apart. They’re horror films — atypical horror films. 2001: A Space Odyssey is about man’s debt to himself and the way it fires back, into space. Dr. Strangelove is about the giddy rush of doomsday, the pride of men who stump for war as peace, and the disregard for life that ends in mad cackling (the only response, short of despair, to blind idiocy). Clockwork Orange is about the death of choice; the guaranty of bad states making bad seeds and so on — how no one can profit from the deal any more than he can rub it out. The Shining is about the horror of nuclear families, how lives are wed to the idea of “home” and homes are invested with the spirit of the people who inhabit them. Full Metal Jacket/Paths Of Glory is about the horror of war.

Kubrick does not seek to endear himself. His films are grave, but each one is spiced with humor (a dry, black humor) and numb howls of pain. Life is heightened. He’s taken more with the logic of dreams (which form a dictionary for our waking lives) than with flat morals. Ambiguity is stressed, oddness deliberate. Here is a man who disdained sentimentality, only to be called a misanthropic nihilist who majored in dehumanization. That is base academia. Ultimately, the guy was humane. He cared.

Barry Lyndon is mostly a non-verbal experience.  Cameras tell the story. Third-person narrative limns the exposition. (Title cards may have sufficed.) It doesn’t hinge on surprise. The episodic shape doesn’t need it. Just as “pace is story as surely as character is destiny,”3 saying things beforehand creates drama.

Suspense is educated. Barry rises, Barry falls — but, lost boy that he is, we’re familiar with his kind of story. We’d rather dine on Kubrick’s little twists and turns. Narration rids the need for buildup, turning counterpoint (ironic counterpoint) to the images. Technique is all, but skill brings the movie upfront.

We are left with the careful collaboration of camera and face. Like the best science fiction, Kubrick shows a world to match ours, but one of strange aspect. A play-acting society, ruled by ritual, choked by dispassion, betrayed by the face — Fellini Satyricon (1969) in reverse.

Great stars of yore had great faces, and used them to great effect. (After all, eccentricity of the body makes you stand out.) Lyndon is full of such masks. A world of shadow, candlelit rouge and powder turns players into ghosts. Eyes lift, brows arch, the camera zooms. This is the master’s line. Shrewd placement of the camera supersedes blocking. Means have been streamlined. Each frame hones the cinema.

Duality is divine symmetry. Shots handheld break with static composition. Duels open and close the film. Family feuds echo the soldierly wars of the first half. And there’s more: Opposites attract Barry and Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). She’s tame; he’s not. Precision of plot portends doom. Bad moves are fatal. Candlelight gives heat to warmth, chills to cheeks. Even the title is a volte-face, adding the royal surname to the rogue’s.

And Barry is a face in search of himself, a cipher masked. His dad is killed in a duel. Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) shoots Barry, his step-dad. So we parse the sad math of father and son. They haunt each other’s legacy. Rootless and proud, Barry “acts” to stay alive. He’s an outcast. Décor’s a sham. All’s a play.

History repeats itself — and that is the tragedy at the film’s heart.

To his credit, O’Neal is vacuous and Irish. He fits the bill. Meaning: he doesn’t fit in; Brits surround him. Supporting roles perk you up, and Kubrick saw the irony. (Moving, not talking, O’Neal was The Driver (1978), a silent in and of itself.) Realism goes, but Kubrick trusts the moment. Watch the duel with Lord Bullingdon. The director has a symphony in mind (not just Handel’s Sarabande). Actors are given some of the highest notes. They don’t act around the editing. He lets them be.

I know Stanley. I brood too. I’m a perfectionist. Stanley was an intellectual, but he lived for the masses. Never compromising story (the hard truth), he gave good show. He was a star. Exaltation of form, of new forms, won out. The craft is impeccable, and I find this endearing. Faith is shared.4

His films are not perfect, but they come close. Did we tire of the “masterpiece”? Maybe he was hard put to top himself after 2001. Maybe he psyched us out. Few people know how to watch a film these days. Some films dare analysis, or patience. Barry Lyndon douses “criticism.” My slant is a poor thing.

So the movie is a mausoleum. Do main characters have to be sympathetic all the time? The movie looks at the pageantry of decay. Every age is an ice age. Each ice age is a disco. Every disco is botched. Yes, the film is a freeze-out. But it’s gorgeous and inspiring. That is all you can ask for.

1In a simplistic sense.

2Good writers worked FOR Kubrick: Jim Thompson, Dalton Trumbo, Vladimir Nabokov, Terry Southern, Arthur C. Clarke, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Diane Johnson, Gustav Hasford, Michael Herr, Brian Aldiss, Frederic Raphael. Some wrote about him: Eyes Wide Open (Frederic Raphael), Kubrick (Michel Ciment), Kubrick (Michael Herr), Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (Christiane Kubrick), Full Metal Jacket Diary (Matthew Modine).

3Kubrick (Michael Herr).

4Eyes Wide Shut is special. Many thought it was a crock. Sometimes great art is misunderstood.

Rating: A+

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