Barry Lyndon (UK/USA/Ireland1975)
I am a lover of dense work and I always have been. I’ve read Ulysses twice, have long passages of Atlas Shrugged memorized, read The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two months (1500+ pages) and have slayed almost every great work of classic fiction except for Finnegan’s Wake, War & Peace, Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov (which I’m currently about a third of the way through, as well as about a quarter of the way through Infinite Jest, although it’s not yet Classic).
With film I’m still getting there. For example, I’ve never watched all of Intolerance or The Decalogue or any Bela Tar (no Horse of Turin, no Satantango, which shames me). About a week and a half ago, I knocked off a big one: Stanely Kubrick’s largely unseen masterpiece Barry Lyndon.
The film is the best and the worst of Kubrick’s aesthetic tastes. It’s production quality is among the best of any film ever produced – pause it at any point and it looks like a painting from the 18th century. Its composition, like that of 2001’s, is precise and perfect: pause it at any point and you are looking at a perfect frame. I posted a few of these at my Instagram count, literally me just taking a picture of the television with my phone and a couple examples are difficult to differentiate film from painting.
Kubrick used natural light whenever possible, often shooting by candlelight using the fastest lenses ever employed for a commercial film in order to achieve what are quite simply astonishing, long takes where the only movement is the flicker of candlelight and the actors themselves.
The film is deliberately slow – nothing Kubrick made before or after rivals Barry Lyndon’s testing of the audience’s patience. It makes 2001 feel like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and at more than 3 hours, this takes work by the audience, even those whose tastes in film are mature and who love Kubrick’s other films. Kubrick completed a massive body of research for a project he ultimately abandoned due to its logistical impossibility – Napoleon – but was able to transfer some of the research to Barry Lyndon (supposedly Kubrick wanted to bring Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to life – Reese Witherspoon actually did it a few years back, though I’ve not seen it; Barry Lyndon is based on Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon) but instead settled on the darkly comic adventures of Redmond Barry, an Irish adventurer with big dreams.
Notice I said “darkly comic.” Kubrick’s sense of humor is often overlooked, even though some of his most notable films (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and especially Full Metal Jacket) contain long stretches of humor – Slim Pickens and R. Lee Ermey are supposedly the only two actors Kubrick ever allowed to veer off-script and to great effect, Pickens’ ad-libbed line about the survival packs his bombardier crew were equipped with (“hell a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this) being one of the great one-liners in Kubrick’s filmography. Barry Lyndon’s humor is dark and subtle and it takes work to get, but it’s there and I think of the film as more of a comedy of manners and errors than a period piece.
The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that he cares about the views of only two people, “…one is named Bergman and the other is Bresson…” Bergman made what I think is pound for pound the best film ever made with Persona, and Bresson made pound for pound the other greatest films ever made for me in Mouchette and Balthazar, but Kubrick remains my favorite (Bergman is a very, very close second regarding my personal likes and tastes). With that said, Barry Lyndon is in my mind so close to Ulysses in so many ways, the primary being this: you do not recommend these works to people, because the people who want to find them will find them, and everyone else won’t last 15 minutes on them.
I cannot honestly say I enjoy Barry Lyndon in the sense that it’s entertaining or escapism, because I do not think I did – it is in my mind no accident that Kubrick followed it with The Shining, easily the most crowd-pleasing film in his filmography, the exact opposite of Barry Lyndon (I consider The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut to be “sister” works, as closely related as any two of Kubrick’s films, and although I far prefer EWS, The Shining still remains his most watchable work). A cynical response to Barry Lyndon in the wake of the acclaim of 2001 would be: so what, exactly, are you trying to prove, and who are you trying to prove it to? 2001 is a deep exploration expertly done, and Barry Lyndon doesn’t have a great deal to say (at least for me) yet goes to fanatical lengths to properly say it.
The film cost $11 million to make and made more than $20 million at the box office, presumably on the fact that it is written, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, but I wonder if he took another famous quote of Tarkovsky’s to heart when he made it: “[Stalker] needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theater have time to leave before the main action starts.”