“I’m always surprised by the reactions to my films. There is usually enough truth in the film to be sure of offending somebody.”
– Stanley Kubrick talking with Michel Ciment
The films of Stanley Kubrick are so damn divisive: they’re as praised fengrossing, challenging, and visually ravishing as they are damned for being overlong, self-indulgent and cold-blooded.
Virtually every Kubrick film had controversy of one type or another; LOLITA was condemned by the Church for its salacious story of an older man infatuated with a teenage girl; DR. STRANGELOVE was attacked for its audacity to find humor in nuclear annihilation; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was assaulted for its disquietingly humorous look at urban violence and how to curtail it; 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had people simply scratching their heads wondering what the hell the film meant (if anything). His 1975 period epic BARRY LYNDON divided viewers not necessarily for what was on the screen, but whether or not it was worth seeing at all.
Kubrick’s grandest gamble (as Richard Schickel’s TIME magazine cover story described it in December of 1975) is the tale of a petty man in the 18th century who, via any lying and cheating he can get away with, climbs his way to high society only to, after a number of karmic paybacks, return to his meager roots. Like many of Kubrick’s pictures, the story is pretty straightforward on the surface, but has enormously subtle undercurrents with whatever may be going on behind the character’s eyes.
Redmond Barry, our ambivalent hero who changes his name to Barry Lyndon after marrying the wealthy Countess of Lyndon, is a classically Kubrick protagonist; Kubrick had compared the character of Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to Shakespeare’s Richard III but the comparison might be better suited to Barry: we follow him from being a lovesick Irish lad to becoming a hardened soldier during the Seven Years’ War, to eventually elbowing his way into the aristocracy by seducing and marrying Lady Lyndon. And it’s all done with the kind of calculating glee that King Richard would’ve been proud of, though we’re not privy to the type of introspective monologues Shakespeare gave us into the Duke of Gloucester’s mind. Here, we’re along for the ride and allowed to read into it what we may (like virtually every Kubrick film).
Kubrick wasn’t the type of director who Xeroxed other films, he had his own unique style and didn’t need to crib from the greats, but I wonder if part of his motive in doing LYNDON was to do a film story that had some thematic comparisons to THE GODFATHER, which Kubrick said in later years was his choice as the greatest of all films, and it would’ve been a movie fresh in his mind as he began work on this picture in the mid seventies. Redmond Barry, like Michael Corleone, is born again through the circumstances that get thrown his way into a man with a heart colder than dry ice.
Whatever our feelings about Barry may be, it is fascinating that Kubrick shifts the emotional core of the second half of the film to Lady Lyndon herself, the opaque mistress who becomes a shrinking violet if ever there was one onscreen; in an oppressive society such as hers, any airing of emotions would’ve been unthinkable and as the handsome rogue she’s married reveals himself to be simply an opportunist and flagrantly cheats on her, Lady Lyndon’s silent screams only become more emotional with subsequent viewings, something that clearly belongs in the terrain of great films.
BARRY LYNDON itself was a project born on the rebound. Kubrick’s dream movie, a film on Napoleon, had been aborted by MGM in the late 1960s and, after making CLOCKWORK in 1971, Kubrick eyed Thackeray’s novel VANITY FAIR as a good project. It would be set in a similar Napoleonic period and would’ve allowed him to utilize the special photographic techniques he’d devised for his Napoleon project: employing special lenses made by Zeiss that had been designed for use in satellite photography that would allow Kubrick and his team to shoot using primarily only the natural light of the period, which were the Sun or the candle, something no period film had adequately done before. After feeling that VANITY FAIR couldn’t be properly condensed into a feature film, he turned to Thackeray’s THE LUCK OF BARRY LYNDON, and everything clicked into place.
Thackeray famously dubbed VANITY FAIR “a novel without a hero,” and LYNDON equally fits that crown; indeed, our ambivalence about Redmond Barry falls squarely into the author’s claim, as Sebastian Faulk noted in analysing Thackeray, that, “the highest virtue a fictional character can posess is interest,” and that can easily also be said of numerous characters in Kubrick’s oeuvre, from Humbert Humbert to HAL-9000.
The candlelit scenes were a complete success, justly winning cinematographer John Alcott an Oscar for the painterly images which, along with Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE, rank as one of the most ravishingly photographed films (in color) the medium has ever seen; all that candlelit splendor is a perfect counterpoint to what Brian Aldiss described as this film’s “cut-glass frigidity.”
The film’s visual mastery doesn’t limit itself to low-light beauty; Kubrick’s use of the zoom lens is a masterclass in itself. At a time when these were new and all filmmakers were using them, Kubrick and Alcott use zooms not simply for effect, but as a compositional tool. You can see hints of this in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but it comes full flower in LYNDON; look closely at the early scenes alone, and you can see how many of them are done in just a handful of set-ups, using the zoom for emphasis wherever and however appropriate, but most especially in the moment when Lady Lyndon sees (with Swiss watch precision and calculation) that her husband is unfaithful.
Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism stretched even to the ways his films were to be shown. When the film was released in 1975, Kubrick sent this letter with specific instructions to protectionists on how the candlelit beauty and cruelty in his opus should be shown:
BARRY LYNDON was largely ignored in the US when it arrived in theatres; audiences that year were more ready to embrace JAWS and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and most who did see it found it slightly more exciting than listening to the grass grow. And here again we return to a complaint common to Kubrick, but as with many of the master’s works, this film benefits from letting it soak in, then revisiting it over and over.
For in the end, BARRY LYNDON is about regret as much as anything, about the look in the eyes as the name of someone whom you’ve wasted too much of your life futilely loving swims back into view, leaving you all the time in the world to wonder how to heal the wounds inflicted so coldly by someone you should never have let into your heart.
As with many things in life, such matters can take years, even a lifetime, to fully grasp.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper