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A Second Take
Barry Lyndon

often we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.

Like all budding film buffs, I went through my Stanley Kubrick phase. In high school, I made my way through the oeuvre, dutifully marveling at the camerawork, the gravity of the themes, the flashy performances, and the cavernous sets. I listened to a CD of synthesizer Bach from A Clockwork Orange. I quoted dialogue from Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. I even managed to sit through the endless Barry Lyndon—a feat that took two days and several pots of coffee. In those days, I loved these movies and their director.

Even then, I knew about the naysayers, who argued that Kubrick was pretentious, cold, and mechanical. He’s a satirist, I would insist, a philosopher, a genius. I didn’t doubt myself after reading two biographies, both of which portrayed him as a paranoid recluse who regularly cut off contact with friends and relatives, a shallow thinker more interested in intellectual games than in intellect itself. I didn’t doubt myself as I read Pauline Kael and David Thomson, two critics I admired, both of whom hated him. But finally, I doubted myself when I revisited the filmography and was disappointed almost across-the-board.

I had loved the audacity, artistic ambition, and visual excess of Kubrick, but since then I have come to admire visual simplicity, thematic focus, and smaller, more human pleasures of directors like Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Jean Renoir. I have learned that entertainment is not a bad thing; to be art, a movie doesn’t have to be painful, ambitious, and painstaking. For me, Kubrick’s work is guilty of every alleged defect: lack of humor, lack of emotion, lack of character, and worst of all, lack of humanity. His movies are not interested in real life. They are only about themselves.

And yet there is an anomaly. One film holds up to close scrutiny and only improves with age. It is also the least-watched of the major films and the only one yet to attain “classic” status. That is unfortunate, because Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s best movie, so perfectly realizing all his better ideas that it can save the casual viewer from having to endure any off his other “masterpieces.” I have come to dislike Kubrick, but I have also come to adore Barry Lyndon, which succeeds not despite the weaknesses of its auteur, but because of them.

When I first saw Barry Lyndon, I didn’t know what to think. I liked the battle sequences and appreciated the visual splendor, but the extravagance of Kubrick’s other films left me ill-prepared for Lyndon’s stately composure. At the time, I found the film boring, just like audiences of 1975 (who did not turn up in large numbers). Barry Lyndon is an historical epic, but it’s an epic of inaction and chance. While an omniscient narrator (British actor Michael Hordern) drolly provides a running commentary, selfish opportunist Redmond Barry winds his way across eighteenth-century Europe, going from rags to riches to rags again. The tone of the film is essentially comic, albeit a black, bitterly ironic comedy as Barry stumbles from one situation to the next. He courts three women and participates in three duels, several fistfights, and at least one orgy. Eventually, Barry loses everything.

It would seem that I’ve ruined the ending, but with Barry Lyndon you’re supposed to know what happens next. Throughout the story, Kubrick goes out of his way to tell us what’s coming; the narrator frequently informs us of an upcoming event (often moments before it occurs), and each of the film’s two parts is preceded by a title card:

Part I. By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon.

And at intermission (as usual with Kubrick, Barry Lyndon is anything but brief):

Part II. Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon.

The title cards and narrator act as Brechtian distancing devices, a formal choice befitting Kubrick, an artist obsessed with distance—between humans, across space, between himself and his material. But here, instead of creating a gulf between style and substance, the distance is the substance. This film is about dead characters, a dead world, and a dead social order. The distance the viewer feels is the absurd gap between Barry’s perception of himself and Barry’s standing in the grand scheme of things. At last, the director is saying something about people—Barry is a cipher, a passive figure in his own life, an actor in a series of games and set-ups. Duels are faked, card games are fixed; a nationality changes from Irish to British to Prussian, and even a name is cast off as easily as a cloak. And, replete with sweeping panoramas, armies in formation, and salons lit only by candelabra, the film finally achieves the baroque cinematic rapture Kubrick attempts in his other films.

Elsewhere, his tortuous visual precision suffocates the material, but here the meticulousness fits—the formal rigidness reinforces the strict social patterns of this world. Every shot is filled with framing devices, whether the architecture of doorways and tree limbs, or the arrangement of men and women in rococo attire. Scene after scene begins with an extreme close-up of a significant object or visual cue (a loaded pistol, a woman’s hand, a tavern sign) and then slowly zooms out until the characters are dwarfed by a vast landscape. This motif continually emphasizes how insignificant the lives of these people are in the scope of time, an insignificance that is bleak, but that is also very funny.

Kael and others have criticized both the film’s length (a cool 184 minutes) and the flat performances of its leads (O’Neal offers little more dimension than a paper doll, and Berenson’s range stretches from wooden to plasticine), but both criticisms are essential insights into the movie’s success. The simplicity of the performances encourages us to pass judgment on characters that aren’t, to be polite, particularly likable (to be less polite, one could call them rich European assholes). By stretching an admittedly thin narrative thread across three hours, Kubrick finds room to develop full sequences out of the tiny moments other films would ignore. Consider the early scenes in which Barry’s inner world is expressed visually through long, silent takes. When Barry watches a British captain dance with his beloved cousin, for instance, we feel his pathetic jealousy. Later, as the three characters exchange stares across a dinner table, we understand both why Barry loved her and what he must do next. These moments rely on nothing but editing and acting, but in their quiet way, they contain multitudes—and significantly, they contain actual human emotion.

The pleasure of Barry Lyndon, then, is entirely unique. We are moved not by character, but by texture: a dance of eyes across a card table, the tension between the bodies of two lovers, black clouds rolling over an Irish hillside. This is a film to sink into rather than to watch. It will neither sweep you up nor make you think. Its rhythms are deliberate, not frenetic. Its director will always be a divisive figure, held up by some and hated by others—but all ought to take a second look at Barry Lyndon. The movie contains both the best and worst of Kubrick, turning both the good and the bad into something bigger, something close to greatness. And it certainly has more to say about life than a gang of codpiece-clad droogs, two furries fucking in the Overlook hotel, or a swarm of shrieking apes around a monolith.

By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-01-11
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