Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Kubrick Kick: Barry Lyndon


Today is the second film in my series of Kubrick Kicks. For no apparent reason, I'm simply on a Stanley Kubrick kick, just like sometimes I'm on a big Tarantino or Kurosawa kick. No reason. So, today, we continue with a look at the interminable
Barry Lyndon.

It's three hours long. And it feels like it. But it still ended up being quite entertaining.
Barry Lyndon is an adaptation of Thackeray's picaresque novel, written for the screen by the great wild-eyed master, Stanley Kubrick. The idea of the movie is that we follow Redmond Barry of Barryville as he attempts to keep jumping up the social hierarchy until he never has to want or work ever again, until he is his own master. One of the reasons why the film feels so long is the episodic structure. It takes almost an hour and half before Redmond adds the Lyndon part to his name.

So I'll just talk about the visuals for a moment, before I get into the story, or characters. Again, like all of Kubrick's movies, this is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. The natural lighting, the sumptuous photography of the landscapes, the intricately detailed deep focus shots, it's all very gorgeous. As mentioned in a previous post, I like Kubrick's use of tracking shots and Steadicam, and he uses both to great use. But after checking with Wikipedia, I don't think that
Barry Lyndon uses the Steadicam, rather it utilizes the normal tracking effects of wheels, I believe. Anyway, it's still awesome. Watching a character walk through a house followed by the camera or led by the camera is like watching a ballet; there's something very graceful about it.

Apparently, this film was inspired by 18th century paintings, and Kubrick attempted to emulate the soft-focus, or the haze of such works. He succeeds greatly. The first shot of the film, of a duel, is an incredible composition that could be printed and hung on my wall, I think. Very few directors have that immediate skill of composition... Woody Allen and Scorsese come to mind as famous examples. (Someday, I'll post about the gorgeous and detailed
Manhattan.) In filming the indoor scenes, Kubrick used a very wide aperture lens and no artificial lighting. The effect is like a flickering painting, quite beautiful.

But, as I've said before, my problems with Kubrick don't come from his technical skills. He's a master at filming something. My problems are at the story and character level. Here's another example of a Kubrick movie without emotion, without any audience investment. Redmond Barry is a pretty unlikeable character: he's lazy, shiftless, devious and unfaithful. He squanders his wife's fortune, he beats his stepson (maybe with reason, maybe not), he cheats at cards, and he's a deserter from the army. Only his incredible luck allows him to move forward in life. From what I understand of the source novel, he's one of the first anti-heroes in English literature. So, I guess, it's the point of the film that we don't like him. But I'm not rooting for him. This isn't like Alex from
A Clockwork Orange, who is the victim of a system as crooked as he is. We root for Alex because he's being brainwashed, forced into becoming "good", which isn't the same as being good. So we feel for him. But, Barry Lyndon is merciless in his pursuit of social climbing. He lavishes money and parties so he can advance, but it's to no avail, as he publicly beats his near-adult son. Barry Lyndon is a cold callous character.

Again, I understand the point of the film. We're not supposed to root for him, because he is an anti-hero. But this is a small example of my problems with Kubrick as a whole. He seems drawn to characters that are loathsome or morally dubious, such as Humbert Humbert or Jack Torrance. There's often no salvation or redemption for these characters: just tragic ends.

All in all, I found Barry Lyndon to be entertaining. While individual scenes may be slow-paced, the plot itself unfurls at a decent pace. There's plenty of duels and action to liven up the joint, and unlike many period films, this movie isn't terribly interested notions of romance or love. Barry Lyndon's first love is his cousin, and it has disastrous consequences, but Redmond's luck is the only thing that keeps him alive. The theme of dueling is omnipresent in the film; most of the important plot points happen over duels, such as Redmond's father's death, his reason for departing Barryville, the end of his story, it's all duels. The final duel in the film is very suspenseful and, of course, filmed impeccably.

For modern filmgoers, this ain't going to be to their tastes. The length and the subject matter isn't keeping with the prevailing tastes, but for fans of period films or fans of Kubrick, this is a must. I wasn't disappointed or bored to tears, as I expected, but moreover entertained. Isn't that the most one can ask from a film?

Tomorrow I'll be watching Kubrick's
Lolita, which I have fairly high expectations for. The novel remains one of the best ever written, in my opinion, and Nabokov's language and prose does not lend itself easily to a film version. I look forward to see what tricks the master has up his sleeve.

EDIT: I think that Roger Ebert, a critic who I hold in high esteem, has articulated my problems and my compliments with Barry Lyndon in a much more eloquent and pointed way. Click here for his review.

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