Friday, January 6, 2012

Barry Lyndon (1975) A Film by Stanley Kubrick

Barry Lyndon, despite its superficial appearance as a departure for the great director, is Stanley Kubrick's immaculate, thought-provoking attempt to grapple with history, nature, storytelling, philosophy, war, and the follies of man, all themes that had come to define his work up to that point and beyond. The film, concerning the rise and fall of the titular figure in eighteenth-century Europe, is sparse, detached, and staid on the surface, comprising few of the cosmetic qualities - overt stylistic brio, provocation, explosive moments - associated with Kubrick. Yet its surface only disguises its extraordinary depth, which to some extent is also nothing new for Kubrick (think of the labyrinthine coded language referencing the Apocalypse in The Shining, or the casual black humor of Dr. Strangelove in lieu of a fictional military catastrophe all too feasible), but it's perhaps more understated in its idea delivery than any of his other films. In many ways, Kubrick flatters the conventions of a respectable period piece: a well-spoken, literary third-person narration by Michael Hordern, breathtaking costumes, sweeping scope, and linear, episodic progression. But a closer look yields subtle, significant mutations to these familiar tropes, all of which drastically alter the implications of the drama.

If there's one key subtext in the film that separates it from the conventional period piece, it's Kubrick's keen awareness of the nature of the material - drawn from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray - as historical, and therefore imaginary, even deceptive. Barry Lyndon is always sensitive to the fallibility of any attempt to narrativize history, using deliberate aesthetic maneuvers to remove the audience from the spell of dramatic involvement and belief. Its meticulous recreations of paintings which are themselves staged scenes, its hyper-articulate narrator who undermines the onscreen action and effectively stomps out suspense, and its propensity to zoom back and subsume its characters into flat painterly tableaus are all methods of drawing attention to the idea of history as illusory representation, a fitting analogue to Redmond Barry, a man similarly prone to “representing” different versions of himself, none of which can be said to be the real thing. Barry (Ryan O'Neal), exemplifying what must have been a pivotal belief in the notion of class mobility in 18th century Europe, starts as an ignoble Irish farmhand lusting clumsily after his gold-digging cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and subsequently becomes a British soldier, a Prussian soldier, a temporary surrogate husband to a lonely country widower, a wandering gambler with a rich Irish sidekick, a husband to the gorgeous and wealthy Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a step-father to the jealous and vengeful Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), a real father to Bryan Patrick Lyndon (David Morley), and an aging, lonely, anonymous member of the European financial elite.

All the while, the film's construction keeps the audience several steps ahead of Barry's inevitable rise-and-fall progression, making pre-ordained and inconsequential what might feel surprising and remarkable if pared down to its essential narrative movements. On the surface, Barry appears to suspend great courage in fighting a duel with the suitor of his cousin Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), fantastic bravery in participating in a head-to-head battle in an open field, supreme cunning in escaping the British Army and eventually the Prussian Army, clever forward-thinking in his victorious gambling pursuits, and impressive charm in his wooing of Lady Lyndon. However, the film incessantly pries apart the idyllic appearances of Barry's life, revealing them to often be the products of little more than ignorance, absurdity, and fraudulence, and it does so largely through two contrapuntal elements of its cinematic expression: Kubrick's images, slow, observant, clinical, deprived of internal spontaneity, always squeezing the life out of otherwise romantic scenes, and especially Hordern's narration, which can be gently sympathetic but is more often ironic, prescient, and scathing, creating a small mockery out of a man who believed himself to be of utmost fascination and prestige. Crucially, the narrator is also fixated on mortality and fate, mirroring Kubrick's largely panoramic viewpoints with his dry pronouncements that reveal an awareness of the dwarfing tendency of the vast physical world, the brutality of its treatment to single human beings in a complex network of large groups.

As such, Kubrick’s film is an acknowledgment of the power of historicizing and storytelling (Hordern engages in both) as means for putting into perspective truths broader than the scope of individual lives, and as a correlative it recognizes the power of artifice in ignoring matters of infinity, mortality, and nature. The society Barry climbs through is defined by acts of performance, ritual, and fakery, with no distinctions made between the Irish peasantry he sprouts from and the aristocratic high-class he ultimately finds himself locked in. Barry's duel with Captain Quin is revealed to be an elaborate hoax, something designed by the referees (members of Barry's extended family) to drive Barry out of the town and allow Nora and Quin's marriage to run smoothly, which ultimately succeeds in blinding Barry to his own failings. The machinations of Barry in the Prussian Army - lying, acting, faking sincerity and allegiance to the military - are normally intercepted by the effortlessly utilitarian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kr├╝ger) and waged against Barry in some way. The wealth earned from poker and chess on the road comes initially from cheating and only then from acquired skill and insight, and still it's a pastime bereft of social interaction and emotional connection. Kubrick is suggesting that these performances and rituals function as tools for blinding one's awareness to the cosmos, no matter how - and sometimes because of how - absurd and unproductive they are. On the other hand, stories, or retroactive perspectives, are the only way of realizing the essential insignificance of man in a larger scheme of nature.

Kubrick's harsh critique and minimization of his characters is coupled with a paradoxical sympathy, a level of genuine feeling for these misguided and mismanaged figures. A key distinction must be made: in the face of all these people suspending doubt and disbelief and convincing themselves that what they’re doing is dignified and true, Kubrick expresses regret rather than hostility. He feels sadness and pity for Barry, whose biggest shortcomings are his immodesty, his boundless materialism, and his inability to define his tangible goals for happiness and value. In an endless grasp for a vaguely shaped satisfaction, Barry cannot accurately contextualize his life even as the steps he takes to realize his desires are continually thwarted by uncaring external forces. When he's not refusing to acknowledge the troubles facing him, he's dropping the blame on someone in his close proximity, leading to a warped vision of social behavior and upward mobility that dictates the evaporation of love from his life. In his wake, he leaves people bumbling in depression, anxiety, or rage. The point of greatest sympathy here is Lady Lyndon, who Marisa Berenson plays as a melancholic ghost somehow detached from Barry's life before she even enters it, a stiffly and perfectly decorated object floating silently through the simultaneously opulent and underfurnished spaces of the Lyndon estate.

This unerring regret for the courses of action taken in Barry Lyndon's stuffy milieu extends from the individual to the collective, from the private to the public, and from the small-scale to the large-scale. Much of the film's guiding principles can be culled from its final onscreen text, wittily deemed an "epilogue": It was in the reign of George the III that the above named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. Kubrick's reliance upon the reverse zoom to move from intimate moments to dehumanizing master shots (often the only camera "movement" in the film, likely because it suggests a museum viewer scanning a composition on a wall) is a way of proposing this essential equality from our backwards-looking perspective, the ultimate interchangeability of these individuals within this particular moment in history, destined to be washed away with the flow of time. Thus, their frivolous concerns and rash behaviors are all the more regretful for failing to create distinctions among the pack.

Similarly, the text of the epilogue indicates that although Barry is ostensibly the center of the story, his narrative is much like those other figures that dot the beautiful horizon. Lord Bullingdon, who eventually duels with Barry after his Freudian complex fizzles out and reaches its logical conclusion, is finally likened to Barry despite his role in orchestrating his downfall, what with his outsized ambition and trivial ruses (he devises a complicated plan just to get Lady Lyndon out of her own mansion before he arrives, ironically, to take the place of the man he hates). Kubrick implies that the many acts of dueling (three are shown in the film), so petty in motivation and so devastating in execution, are no different than acts of large-scale war, which trivialize human life with the same outrageous precision. It's the ease with which the idiotic behaviors of small, insignificant individuals can come to permeate vast quantities of people that supplies the real sadness and poignancy to Barry Lyndon's tragedy.


Adam Zanzie said...

Carson, nice review. I seem to love this movie beyond all reason. I even connect to it on a strong emotional level, even though it's famous for being one of Kubrick's more "detached" works. Perhaps it's because the more I see it, the more I see myself identifying with each of the principal characters, from Barry to Lady Lyndon to Lord Bullingdon.

You've made a lot of great points here about Michael Hordern's narrator, who definitely seems to narrate Barry's story with a disdain of his own for the protagonst. His constant habit of spoiling the suspense in Barry's story seems to be an attempt to remind the audience that Barry is not a significant character in history, and that we have no good reason to care about him. Yet strangely, every time I've seen the film, I always do.

The "epilogue" at the end of the film is wonderful. It suggests that no matter what pain Barry caused Lady Lyndon and Lord Bullingdon -- and vice versa -- it doesn't matter anymore, because they're all dead. Class and welfare don't mean a damn thing after death, which is one of death's luxuries. This makes Barry Lyndon a somewhat optimistic film in this regard, which reminds me of Kubrick's infamous quote about how The Shining was optimistic in its own special way (because it suggested the existence of an afterlife).

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for the comment Adam. I'm definitely yearning to talk about this film right now, which totally just blew me away for the first time. It's probably going to jump into the top tier of my favorite Kubrick films.

I didn't mean to imply that I wasn't moved by Barry Lyndon on an emotional level just because it's so "detached." In fact, I'm always moved by Kubrick's work, even at its most removed, because I think that his aesthetic distance provides space to paradoxically grow comfortable with the characters. It's an odd paradox indeed, but one that I truly believe works, and I can't understand when people call his work entirely cold and off-putting. Sure, most of the time Kubrick's focusing on concepts that defy the idea of humanism because they're all about how humans are de-individualized and overwhelmed by their own creations, but what I was trying to get across in my last few paragraphs is the way that Kubrick still harbors a ton of sympathy for the people he shows being de-individualized. I found myself really caring for the sad idiots in this film too, especially Lady Lyndon, and definitely Barry in the first half.

I guess in some ways the epilogue is optimistic (it just strikes me as rather silly and New-Agey to find comfort in the idea of souls uniting and becoming inextricable from each other after death), but it's also really cynical if looked at from another angle. Yeah, they're all equal now, but equality also implies interchangeability, the idea that there's absolutely no difference between these people. Individuals are subsumed into the whole, which is rather saddening, and certainly indicative Kubrick's career-long concern for the place of humans in the grand scheme of nature. I see Barry Lyndon as a work of lament, almost even anger, at the way the characters fail time and time again to create meaning in their lives.

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