Wednesday, May 5, 2010

1975 - Barry Lyndon

Have you ever eaten waffle fries? If not, find some now and eat them. They're just like regular fries, only shaped to look kind of like waffles. I'm not entirely sure how that happens. I assume it's some kind of latticed pressing implement. But whatever the method, it takes regular slices of potato and turns them into crispy waffles of deliciousness. My local diner makes them and, if it weren't so detrimental to my arteries, I could live off them.

Today, I viewed another Kubrick entry into the Best Picture nominated family, this one from 1975...

Barry Lyndon
Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick
(based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray)
Ryan O'Neail, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Leon Vitali
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
4 wins, including Best Cinematography

Redmond Barry (O'Neal) is an 18th century Irishman with a crush on his own cousin who, despite her initial reciprocation, shuns him for a well-to-do English Captain. After a pistol duel, Barry is forced to flee his small village in search of a noble life. He winds up in Europe, fighting in the British Army during the Seven Years War. Not thinking much of that game, he deserts but is caught by a Prussian Army Captain (Kruger), who soon puts him to work on an espionage mission with a crooked gambler (Magee). Barry's dreams of nobility lead him to wed Lady Lyndon (Berenson), making an enemy of his new stepson (Vitali).

Barry Lyndon (the film, not the character) is certainly in no rush. It begins very earnestly with dramatic pauses, lingering looks and sweeping landscapes. Each line is so desperately important, it almost feels like a period soap opera. But this sincerity grabs hold of you and you find yourself swept away into another world. A world with plenty of rules, and just as many schemers willing to break them.

Ironically, despite the film's crawling pace, there are several segments which seem oddly rushed. A scene will last several minutes, involving lengthy pauses, only to be followed by a scene that takes place weeks or months later. This is particularly evident in the film's relationships. On more than one occasion, Barry meets a new character in an intense and prolonged scene and, one scene later, thanks to some convenient narration, they have a fully developed relationship. And since it's a Stanley Kubrick film, you can expect that some of those characters will be at least mildly enigmatic. (A particular favourite of mine is Captain Feeney, a highwayman with a deadly gaze and a polite tongue.)

When watching Barry Lyndon, your eyes are certainly treated to an extravaganza of design. Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume Design were understandably lavished upon the film, not to mention the stunning locations. The film's other Oscar was for Leonard Rosenman's arrangement of compositions by Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert and Mozart, amongst others, back when the Academy presented an award for a score adaptation. (Rosenman made it two for two the following year when he won again for adapting the songs of Woody Guthrie for Bound for Glory.)

Barry Lyndon's other three nominations went to Kubrick himself, for writing, directing and producing the film. Sadly, he won none of them. In fact, despite numerous nominations in each of those categories, the only Oscar he ever won was for Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey.


  1. Great film slow but visually spectacular

  2. I remember having a disagreement with a friend when Barry Lyndon came out over its merits as a motion picture. She called it a coffee table book of a movie that just laid there inert. (I think she must have read Pauline Kael's review since she used those exact descriptive words.) Kael felt Kubrick had worked out the visuals magnificently , but failed miserably with the dramatics.

    At the time, I was a die-hard Kubrick fan, and defended his approach, saying that if one goes into Barry Lyndon expecting Tom Jones, there will be inevitable disappointment. Kubrick filmed it exactly as he wanted. Yes, the story is laid out before us in titles and narration designed to pretty much tell us what is going to happen before it does. I think Kubrick wanted to take Thakeray's novel and let it unfold as it would while reading.

    Looking at it again last week, I don't disagree with his approach. He draws you into its world and leisurely gives you Redmond Barry's rise and fall. At first the repetitive zooms, whether going out to in or in to out, call attention to themselves. Soon however, I forgot about them and was absorbed into the story and the time period.

    Today, it is still a divisive film, but it has risen critically and can stand alongside the other nominees for 1975 and in some cases in front of them. It certainly is the alternative choice of that year.

  3. EC: Yep, that's it in a nutshell.

    Mike: I also felt acutely aware of certain cinematic conventions but, like you, after a while, all that faded into the background and I became absorbed by this historical world. Kubrick has a knack for that - adding just the slightest bit of quirkiness, which you very quickly adapt to and then hardly notice at all.

  4. 1975's Best Picture Race is all too complicated for me... I've seen all, but none recently. I liked them all, but found flaws in them. Jaws is maybe the most dedicated to its genre, but isn't it a bit embarassing to chose Jaws as ur BP of 1975? :P

    I wouldn't go with Cuckoo, neither with Nashville, I guess. Which leaves Barry (I didn't like it back then but it grew) and Dog Day Afternoon, which is not really my type.

    tough call.

  5. Yeah, "Tom Jones" set the expectations at a canted angle, so when Kubrick comes along and tries to evoke the era and its pace and eccentric formality, it's seen as "slow." Well, if you want it to "feel" like the 18th century, you don't employ MTV cutting. At this point, Kubrick was buried deep in the soil of film-making, looking for new approaches that hadn't been done before. And it always takes a few years for audiences to wake up and appreciate the flowers.