Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Barry Lyndon

An outtake from Stanley Kubrick's ravishing, and deceptively complex, "Barry Lyndon", a film I have been fortunate enough to have seen on the wide screen.


  1. "Barry Lyndon" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" are Kubrick's two greatest masterpieces - hand's down. Both suffer diminishment if not seen on the large cinema screen the Director intended (his other films suffer less, but suffer all the same).

    "Barry Lyndon" IS "deceptively complex"; the grasp of that complexity eluded all the critics who had the advantage of seeing this glorious work on the large. screen. (If there WERE original reviews that took notice of the subtleties of the story, I missed them in 1975 when the film opened.)

    Yes, Redmond is a liar and an opportunist, but the greatest liar in the film is the narrator, who tries to deceive the lazy members of his audience into believing that the titular protagonist is a common rake - or, as the young Lord Bullington charges, a "common opportuntist." The reality of the fact is, that Redmond is not by any means COMMON.

    As I see it, it is the narrator who is "common." The narrator, like most in the audience, is oblivious to the hidden truth of Redmond's heart: Throughout the film Redmond is seeking above all else a father to replace is natural father, killed in the very first scene. Every man in the film that Redmond meets, in fact, becomes a potential surrogate. This is why Redmond breaks down emotionally at his first meeting with the Chevalier, who has no son of his own. (Kubrick strengthens the truth by removing the familiar relationship between the two men found in the novel.)

    By the time Redmond has married he endeavors to become his OWN father, in his loving relationship with his natural son Bryan. The adult Lord Bullington then becomes the earlier Redmond's doppelgaenger - a fatherless son seeking the love of a man who is not his father, Bullington's stepbrother now "filling the shoes" of the older heir.

    These are just thoughts that I have not seen reflected among the professional critics.

    I consider "Barry Lyndon" to be one of the five greatest films of all time.

  2. “Barry Lyndon” would certainly have to be on any such list.

    I am not surprised critics did not know what to make of the film. In a single viewing, there is far too much to absorb. On first encounter, one simply takes in the story, and marvels at the painting-like visual feast set before the viewer. I would not want to be handed the responsibility of writing professionally about the film after a single screening.

    The Michael Hordern narration is intended, I believe, to serve several purposes: punctuate the film; propel the story forward; provide context; editorialize and moralize; and create tension by offering misleading information that signals that the narration is not entirely to be trusted.

    Have you noticed that the narration in Terrence Malick’s “Days Of Heaven” provides much the same function?

  3. With minimum reflection, the five best movies I have ever seen (and I have seen all of them multiple times) are: Barry Lyndon, Chinatown, Days Of Heaven, A Passage To India and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.

  4. Kubrick made all his films, I believe, in ways that demanded multiple viewings in order for one to "get" it. Over the decades "Barry Lyndon" has grown in stature in the estimation of many critics who were unfortunate enough to be saddled with responsibility to review the film in 1975. "Space Odyssey" also was poorly received in 1968, for the same reason, as you've said: too much innovation, prowess . . . too much of everything.

    Both films share common
    underlying themes, among them the Kubrick favorite, "the duality of man," which is mentioned outright in "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), certainly not a great work of art like his previous work.

    This "doppelganger" theme (which Dostoyevsky, an amature psychologist, also recycled in his novels) is everywhere found in Barry Lyndon, even in the title. In becoming his own father as Barry Lyndon, Redmond unconsciously projects himself onto his two sons, who are polarized against each other - "good son" vs "bad son".

    Understanding the psychology of our protagonist, particularly during the second half of the film, allows us to divine the original relationship between father and son before the very first scene in the movie. Nothing is said about Barry senior except that he might have made a good lawyer. We only know that the father is killed because of some petty argument over the ownership of horses. We, the audience, however, can discern the truth that the relationship between Barry Sr. and Barry Jr. was frought with tension, evinced by a strict disciplinarian (reflected in Capt Quinn, for example) trying rightly to raise his child, who is alternately "good" (like Bryan) and "bad" (like Bullington).

    It is clear to me that Redmond himself had had a crucial part in the skirmish which resulted in the first duel in the movie. Redmond, I believe had stolen a horse from his father's antagonist, trying in disobedience to please his father as a "good son". Consequently, for the rest of his life Redmond carried the weight of guilt of that "bad son" who had caused tragedy. This, I believe, is why Barry Jr. beats Lord Bullington: Redmond is actually beating "himself", the "bad son". Bryan, the "good son," then steals away with the horse given him by his father, falling fatally from it - the "just recompense" for a disobedient son.

    I have never seen "A Passage to India", though I have read the novel, surely E.M. Forster's best. Neither have I seen "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Two of the other three of your picks are also on my personal list: "Barry Lyndon" and "Days of Heaven". I reserve the remaining three slots for "2001: A Space Odyssey", "The Last Emperor", and, strangely enough, the 1968 film adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which no one seems to have ever heard of. The latter pick is the most breathtaking adaptation of Shakespeare that I've ever seen, on stage or screen.

  5. I did not even know there was a 1968 movie based upon “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which shows that I do not follow cinema very closely.

    I liked “The Last Emperor” very much, too.

    I suspect you would like “A Passage To India”. It is David Lean’s finest film, and the only one he was able to edit without time constraints and without a studio breathing down his neck. Lean edited the film himself—and it is the best-edited film I have ever seen. The guy was a genius.

    Many people are unmoved by “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”, but I cannot understand why. It is a brilliant film, a stunning realization of a very difficult novel.

    Thinking about my list again tonight, I think I might replace “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” with “The English Patient” or “The Last Emperor”. On reflection, I think the latter two films are probably finer, on the whole, than “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”.

    Not that it makes a difference . . .

  6. No need to blame yourself for not knowing about Peter Hall’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The film has been largely forgotten on account of the fact that current prints are downright egregious, as Youtube excerpts demonstrate. Alas, the film is nearly unwatchable today. The only reason I have kept it on my top five for so long is because I have been hoping for a restoration to come along soon; but the market demand for such a product being what it is today, any remaining hope has all but evanesced. What DOES remain with me is the MEMORY of my first encounter with the film. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and released in Europe in 1968 but never in the US. Unbelievably, one of the US networks actually broadcast the film uncensored (Titania is topless) in February, 1969. Also unbelievable were the fortuitous circumstances which allowed me to see the film on television, alone at home, with no chance of any member of the family bursting in to “turn the channel.” I was 16 years old.

    The experience of seeing this film is as etched in my memory as my first viewing of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which I saw on a 70-mm screen in Miami six months prior. The production values of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were outstanding, with lush photography and sharp imagery. The presentation was hypnotically atmospheric. The cast was outstanding, and continues to be definitive to this day, my favorite players being Judy Dench (Titania), Ian Richardson (Oberon), Ian Holm (Puck), and Paul Rogers (Bottom). The cast also included Helen Mirren as a wonderful Hermia and Diana Rigg as Helena.

    I greatly admire David Lean; so I have no excuse for not having seen “A Passage to India.” I agree that Lean was probably a genius. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is among my top “10.” (Pooh pooh to anyone who says that the ending is "hoplessly confusing".)

    Perhaps the reason why I never saw “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was because of the abundance of negative reviews claiming the work to be somnolent.

    "The English Patient" is also a great film, but many people hate it. My boss compared the experience of sitting through it to enduring a "root canal."

  7. In his early years, Lean was an editor.

    In “Kwai”, “Arabia”, “Zhivago” and “Ryan’s Daughter”, the editing—done by others—was rushed. The result is that those films do not develop a sustained rhythm, and fail to come into sharp focus. The viewer can see what Lean was going for, but Lean was unable to achieve exactly what he wanted (other than a few isolated sequences of brilliance and power) because he was pressed for time.

    In “India”, which Lean edited himself (without the pressure of a release schedule looming over the editing process), Lean obtained perfection. “India” is a flawless film, perhaps the greatest film of the sound era, economical beyond compare. The film is Mozart.