Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Kubrick's Barry Lyndon

Spring break rocks on today as I watched Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Most of Kubrick's later period films are very well known, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut are all commonly known and pretty well thought of films, with the exception of Eyes Wide Shut, which is criminally underrated, and sadly thought of as softporn rather than the great film than it is. I hope in the future, the film will be rediscovered by critics and appreciated because it's a phenomenal film, #32 on my personal top 100 list.

But, regardless of their opinion, people still know the film, and that's something that can't really be said of Barry Lyndon, which seems to be sort of the lost film of Kubrick's late canon. The only thing I really knew about the film before seeing it was that it was directed by Kubrick and he developed new lighting for the film that would let him film scenes using just candlelight. Well, now having seen it, I think it joins Eyes Wide Shut as another very underrated film.

The film is a great companion piece to what I was talking about yesterday with Satyricon, in that it drops you into a completely alien world, with its own practices and rules that we gradually pick up on. For all I know, it's a realistic depiction of 1700s life, but it's a world with very different rules than our own, and over the course of the film, we gradually learn what these rules are. This is a place where emotions are kept extremely guarded, and our only guide to the characters emotion is the subtleties of their tone. This is a world where a sharp "Gentlemen" can be analagous to "Fuck you" as when Barry basicallly tells Lord Lyndon he wants him to die so he can marry his wife, witha simple 'Gentlemen.' It's very subtle, but that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of character. This is a world where everything is beneath the surface, constrained behind ridiculous costumes and makeup.

It's notable that we never see Barry break down, even at the end of the film when he loses the duel, he doesn't express any sort of remorse, it's just something that happened, the rules of the society dictate what he has to do, and he can't break those rules. The dueling scenes best demonstrate the absurdity of the world. They think that a logical way to resolve disagreements is to stand ten paces away and shoot each other. There's a strong dwelling on the rules of the duel because it's something that seems so dumb, the rules give it a grounding in reality. They're all a prisoner of the restrictions of their society.

The only moment where we see Barry react is when he assaults Bullington after his long series of coded insults. It's satisfying to see Barry punching this guy because Bullington was clearly insulting him, and previously we've never seen someone actually do anything about being insulted. So, seeing Barry lash out here is both shocking and a relief.

I've been reading some reviews of the film, and a lot of them talk about how there's no character development, and I can't agree there. The characters have fully developed emotional lives, but they're all restricted by the rules of their society.

In most movies set in the past, I find the character interaction really unnatural. For all the visual splendor of something like Gladiator or Troy, the way they talk just isn't real. Here, rather than trying to have the people act like modern people, and just talk in the language of the past, Kubrick creates characters who actually come from a different world. That's why they seem so odd, but I completely got the story of Barry and what he went through. I feel like everyone is resigned to the fate they've been given and just drifts along. In the first half, Barry is the exception, with his social climbing and scheming, but in the second half, he is defeated and beaten down like everyone else. Lady Lyndon doesn't seem to do anything or feel anything, but I think it's actually that she's disappointed and trapped in her world, so she has drifted off into an odd haze where she spends her whole life.

If I can find one consistent theme in the film, it's that all the poorer people are alive because they're struggling to reach the level of the nobility, such as Nora's family when they're trying to marry her off to Quinn, or Barry's mother in the second half. However, the people who are actually nobility sort of detach from reality and engage in frivolous pleasures without ever really accomplishing anything.

The film is known primarily for its visuals, and it's an astonishing film. It's sucha rich world, full of atmosphere, and beauty. The costumes are really over the top, and convey the absurdity of the world. Kubrick is a master of framing, and pretty much every image in the film is striking and interesting. His direction isn't as obvious or present as someone like Wong Kar-Wai or Chan-wook Park, but each shot and cut are still very clearly motivated and exacting. The shooting by candlelight works well to enhance the reality of the scenes, and place you in the mindset of these people. At first, I was wondering why there were so many candles around, but I realized their only light was candles, if they didn't have those, it'd be completely dark, no light but the moon.

It is a long film, but I don't think anything should have been cut, it isn't slow paced, it's just there's a lot to cover. It would be possible to lose some of the stuff at the beginning, like his encounter with the German woman, or his fight in army camp, but those things add to the reality of the world, and if you try to streamline the film into what's absolutely essential, you lose the sense of this being a fully realized world, that which is the films greatest virtue.

So, I'd place this film third on my Kubrick ranking. I haven't seen everything he's done, but the ranking of what I've seen is:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. Barry Lyndon
4. The Shining
5. Dr. Strangelove
6. A Clockwork Orange
7. Full Metal Jacket
8. Paths of Glory

I haven't seen Spartacus or Lolita, but I get the feeling he didn't become a real master until 2001, a film which besides being one of the greatest films of all time, marks a huge leap in terms of style for Kubrick. His earlier films have pretty coherent narratives, and are more about content than style. 2001 is definitely concerned with themes, but it doesn't have a very solid story. It's much more about using the medium to riff on something, really taking advantage of film itself as a storytelling medium.

I read an interview with Kubrick where he talks about how his later scripts aren't very detailed, and wouldn't be interesting to read, because he wasn't writing scripts, he was making films. The script is just a step, the quality of the film is ultimately decided by the direction and production team. A great script pretty much ensures a good film, but it takes something more than just a great script to make a great film, and in his later films, Kubrick clearly realizes this.

Like Wong Kar-Wai, he doesn't write a script and then film it, he goes in with an idea of the film in his head, and then tries to capture it as he goes along filming. This means he shoots for a long time, and the film evolves as he goes. Barry Lyndon shot for 300 days, which is brutal, and as time went on, Kubrick took even longer to make each film, notably with the twelve year gap between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. Similarly, it took five years from the start of filming for Wong Kar-Wai to finish 2046.

I think this way of making a film makes a lot more sense than a traditional script. Shooting Ricky Frost, we first went for the dialogue, and the priority was to capture the dialogue, rather than to use the visuals to tell the story. That's why with the project I'm writing now, I'm going much looser, and plan to do a more detailed list of shots, rather than a traditional script. While this goes against the figure it out on set method of Kubrick and WKW, it's necessary, because I don't have people who are going to wait forever for me to figure out what I want to do. But, it's going to be a type of script more suited to film, rather than the format inherited from theater that most directors use.

Interestingly, Barry Lyndon touches on a lot of the same themes as A Clockwork Orange, but I think it's covered much better here. ACO is very obvious in its message about the way that society changes you. The conditioning stuff is great, but it's clearly allegorical, the average person isn't going to be confronted by something like that. Barry Lyndon takes the same themes, the way that society destroys the individuality of the average person, and does it in a much more subtle way, one that's relevant to everybody. Barry is molded into someone acceptable to high society just through the course of everyday events, in the same way that society molds every person into something they might not want to be today. If you don't assert your individuality, it's very easy to get sucked into a role within society, and after Barry gets what he thinks he wants at the end of Part I, we see the society he's living in destroy him in Part II. So, with A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick plants the idea of societal conditioning, then explores it further here in Barry Lyndon, in a much more everyday situation. While our world may be very different than Barry's, there are similar rules on how to behave, and to violate these rules leads to rejection. While our boundaries have changed, the same basic rules about what we can and can't say in 'polite conversation' persist, and everytime you have the "How are you doing?" "Good, and you" "Pretty good," exchange, you're inhibited by the same rules that inhibited Barry.

We never really meet Barry emotionally, there's no scene where he breaks down, or tells us how he feels because that would undermine Kubrick's point. These people can't be emotionally honest with each other, and the audience feels that same frustration. They have to become numb, because if they didn't, repressing those emotions would be too difficult, and they'd react violently, as Alex from ACO, Jack from The Shining or Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket. When Barry does act out violently, he finds himself rejected from society, and as the film winds on, he becomes increasingly numb, such that losing his leg and being thrown out of his home at the end of the film is almost a relief.

Related Posts
2001: A Space Odyssey (7/1/2005)
The Shining (7/5/2005)


Eric T. Voigt said...

This has helped me formulate a nice fat thesis for my paper on Barry Lyndon. Nice.

stefaneechi said...

Great post, some really interesting insights into the film. I didn't expect to love this movie as much as I did. It's sooo good!

timsimms said...

Nice post. Of course, as art appreciation is subjective, I disagree with you on several points (such as which of his films were "best" or "favourite"), but I must point out one factual error. Barry breaks down thrice: When his former second, Captain Grogan dies, when he meets the Chevalier de Balibari, and when he tells Brian his heroic tale for the second time, as the child lays dying.

Johannes Bols said...

Once you've heard the soundtrack, you'll be a gonner...

דקל said...

I really love reading you, but there is no way that "the shining" or "eyes wide shot" are better than "a clockwork orange" - which is not only Kubrick's greatest film, but one of the greatest films in the history