Barry Lyndon: Stanley Kubrick’s Unsung Classic
Stanley Kubrick: a director well-nigh all directors admire but too few imitate. Love him for his fondness for long pauses, his partiality for long takes, his attraction to abstruse philosophical and mystical points, his lack of fear of boring audiences and/or confounding them. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, arguably, his magnum opus, but today, on the eve of his 88th birthday, I’d like to spotlight a film of his not so readily known yet dear to my heart: Barry Lyndon.
As opposed to many other of Kubrick’s films—which are often quite claustrophobic—Barry Lyndon exhibits the sensibility of a director in love with the landscape, in love with Nature, in love with physical existence.
Originally saw Barry Lyndon in the least-ideal circumstances imaginable: on VHS, on a relatively small TV. My initial impression was that it was one of Kubrick’s missteps, and nothing more than another rather tedious period piece.
But then, I don’t know why exactly, decided to give it a second chance. I’m a big believer in second chances—even for non-living things. One spring day, saw it was playing at the Walter Reade Theater here in New York just after work, so I thought why not.
Was captivated almost right away. There’s an early scene in which young Barry catches the young woman he’s in love with exchanging loving looks and touches with another man. Takes place on a green, wind-swept lea, and the bittersweet music of the Chieftains plays in the background. And as I watched I wept, remembering jilted love in the past.
Seeing Barry Lyndon on the big screen at that particular time in my life will remain one of my great movie-going experiences.
The film was indeed meant for the big screen. Its sumptuous grandiosity doesn’t translate well under any circumstances other than ideal. In our Internet age, in which language is so often confined to 140 characters and images are cramped to the dimensions of a smart phone, grandiosity is damned hard to come by.
Barry Lyndon is indeed grandiose—and so I recommend that you wait till it comes to a revival theater near you or till you acquire a huge-screen TV and a Blu-Ray player to take it in. Oscar Wilde and Marshall McLuhan were both completely right: appearances, surfaces, formats matter.
As opposed to many other of Kubrick’s films—which are often quite claustrophobic—Barry Lyndon exhibits the sensibility of a director in love with the landscape, in love with Nature, in love with physical existence. I know so many movie productions are trying to cut costs these days, but shooting on location reaps invaluable benefits.
Something else I love about the film are the long pauses between lines of dialogue. You’d think this would just make things more stilted and artificial—but instead it adds extra weight to even the most innocuous of lines. If I ever direct a movie, I’ll be sure to imitate Kubrick in this regard.
Acting’s pretty good, too. Ryan O’Neal plays the title role. Lyndon is a cad, but a lovable cad (as most cads are), and O’Neal, in his dewy-eyed, rakish youthful prime, captures that. Other notable players are the wanly, exquisitely beautiful Marisa Berenson, who plays Lyndon’s rich French wife, and a British thespian named Murray Melvin, who plays the mesmerizingly, hermaphroditically-visaged Reverend Samuel Runt.
And there’s not a film more beautifully scored than this one. For the Irish scenes, Kubrick recruited the aforementioned Chieftains, a traditional Celtic group well worth checking out. If you can listen to their “Theme from Barry Lyndon”—with its sorrowful violin and mournful uilleann pipes—without feeling a tug of sweet sadness there might just be something seriously (perhaps irrevocably) wrong with you.
The later scenes are mostly backed by Baroque. When I was younger, I loathed Baroque music, thinking it overly staid, dispassionate, and brittle. But now I love its brooding, complex qualities, melancholy and subtle—used to great effect when Barry exchanges glances in a candlelit room with the woman whom he will ruin and will in turn ruin him.
In addition, Barry Lyndon upends my prejudices in that it does two things that I usually loathe in cinema: it utilizes voice-overs and title cards. Voice-overs, almost without exception, are such a lazy and obvious device. To quote Brian Cox in one of my other favorite films, Adaptation:
And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.
But in Barry Lyndon, there is an omniscient, elderly-sound British man who acts as narrator—and, strangely, it works. Perhaps that’s because this narrator is not a character, and he does not simply parrot the action on the screen—he instead fills in some narrative gaps and occasionally provides wry commentary. The voice-overs in Barry Lyndon are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The other exception is the title cards. I’m always annoyed when a film ends with text—it’s a pedantic, ill-fitting last impression to give an audience, and it betrays an unrealistic and also needy mentality on the part of the filmmakers. For in real life, there are no wrapped-in-a-red-ribbon endings, and screenwriters and directors need to cut the cord, already.
In short, ending a movie with text is like ending a book with a rather lame footnote. But I like the titles at the end of Barry Lyndon (SPOILER ALERT), which are these:
It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.
A succinct, pithy call to humility and humanity which we all would do well to hearken to.