[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
[Additional note: Barry Lyndon will screen as part of the Museum of the Moving Image's "See it Big!" series on December 30th and January 1st. Click the links for more information and mark your calendars.]
Jason Bellamy: Both in chronology and in tone, Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick's cinematic middle child. Sandwiched between more provocative films like Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Barry Lyndon is comparatively subdued, straightforward and introverted. Overlooked, too. Released in 1975 to less than breathtaking box office figures and only slightly more enthusiastic reviews, the film has since gained a considerable amount of praise and respect, yet it remains somewhat underground. Part of Barry Lyndon's relative anonymity is due to its surroundings: one mountain amongst a mighty range, all too easily ignored in the vast panorama of Kubrick's achievements. Part is attributable to the self-perpetuating cycle of anonymity (I suspect Barry Lyndon might be the most unseen of the Kubrick films I mentioned above, making it difficult to attain grassroots popularity). Part might even be attributable to the film's unsexy poster, which became its unsexy VHS/DVD cover. (Back in the day when folks used to browse Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, which cover do you think popped off the shelf: this one or this one?) But I suspect the biggest reason Barry Lyndon is overlooked is because of its slow, deliberate, drawn-out pace and, this is crucial, its lack of a signature moment.
What I mean by the latter is that Barry Lyndon, so far as I can tell, has no iconic image or quote or scene or plot twist. Based on the 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, and adapted for the screen by Kubrick himself, Barry Lyndon tells the story of a man who thirsts for love and loses it, thirsts for wealth and finds it, thirsts for status and nearly attains it, and then loses it all. It's the story of a man who engages in duels, war, cons and affairs. And yet despite all that action, despite all that conflict, Barry Lyndon unfolds with astonishing evenness. I wouldn't say it's an emotional flatline, because that would imply lifelessness, but it's certainly an atypically level film. Almost monotonously so. While Howard Hawks said that a good film is three good scenes and no bad ones, Barry Lyndon might be described as a long film with no great scenes and no bad ones. If that sounds like an insult, I don't mean it to. Rather, it's an attempt to capture the feeling of watching this film. As Martin Scorsese said of Barry Lyndon, "People didn't get it when it came out. Many still don't. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you're watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness—and it's all a matter of simple, elemental survival." In many ways, Barry Lyndon is a simple, elemental film, too, is it not?
Ed Howard: I don't know about "simple," but there's no doubt that Barry Lyndon looks, on the surface, like an uncharacteristically direct film from Kubrick, and your list of the films that preceded and followed this one in his filmography emphasizes how strangely this period piece character study sits within the context of his career. But appearances can be deceiving. The film opens with a few indications that this is not the staid period piece it sometimes might seem to be. The detached irony of the narration subtly tweaks the conventions of the historical epic right from the start, highlighting the absurdity of the duel where Barry's father dies, an early foreshadowing of Barry's own future fate. Soon after, Kubrick further announces his sense of humor when, during a scene of Barry and his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) silently, sullenly playing cards, the narrator drolly intones, "First love, what a change it makes in a lad." It's a joke worthy of Woody Allen, introducing a wryly ironic disconnect between words and images that makes the film complex, satirical and multilayered more than simple or elemental—especially when it later becomes clear just what changes this love will cause in Barry's life.
That said, your point that the film doesn't have any scenes that really stand out is confirmed by my own experience with it. Until recently, I last saw Barry Lyndon over a decade ago, when I was going through a big Kubrick phase, like I suspect a lot of young cinephiles do. Though I know I liked it at the time, going into this conversation I can't say I remembered a single concrete scene. What had stayed with me from the film, it turned out, was an overall mood, an aura: languid, beautiful, melancholy. The lighting stayed with me long after the plot had evaporated from my mind. Kubrick shot the film in predominantly natural light for both exteriors and interiors, and the effect is striking, particularly in the indoor scenes where the frame is bathed in the flickering golden glow of candles.
Most of Kubrick's other films have scenes and images that are instantly recognizable and eminently quotable, sometimes to the detriment of the films as a whole, which threaten to be dwarfed by all the parodies and tributes to "Here's Johnny" or the apes in 2001. Barry Lyndon doesn't have any similarly iconic moments, which isn't to say that it doesn't have affecting and powerful individual scenes. It just hasn't passed into pop culture infamy the way so much of the rest of Kubrick's work has. That only makes it easier to appreciate the film as a whole, as a unified work that has Kubrick's characteristic dry wit, his formalist rigor, his slightly detached perspective on the sufferings of his characters. In other words, though Barry Lyndon seems in many superficial ways like a very atypical Kubrick film, an exception in a fairly cohesive career, it's a lot less simple than it seems—and a lot more Kubrickian.
JB: Absolutely. By calling it simple, I don't mean to suggest that it's simple-minded, or that it lacks in cinematic grandiosity. Indeed, if Barry Lyndon has a signature, it would be its breathtaking "natural" lighting. (It's difficult to have a discussion about natural lighting without mentioning Barry Lyndon, and vice versa.) Visually, the film is striking and ornate—anyone with even a cursory understanding of the challenges of shooting with natural light can't help but appreciate its mastery—and yet Barry Lyndon is also, well, natural. Whereas Terrence Malick, another fan of shooting in natural light, spends a considerable amount of time in the magic hour, and Wong Kar-wai has a penchant for deeply saturated images and Yasujio Ozu's films are rigidly composed, Barry Lyndon doesn't exist in quite the same state of heightened reality. It's an anachronistically clean period piece (as so many are), one in which the costumes always seem freshly cleaned and pressed, as if mud and wrinkles didn't exist in the 18th century. But beyond that, the visual allure feels surprisingly organic, as if Kubrick has discovered a world where, day or night, indoors or out, at play or at war, exquisite beauty is inescapable.
That said, the precision of Kubrick's cinematography is unmistakable, too. An inordinate number of the film's compositions put the focal point of the action in the dead center of the frame. And of course Barry Lyndon is also full of Kubrick's familiar slow pans and zooms (forward and reverse). In those respects, Barry Lyndon is quite Kubrickian. And then, as you mentioned, there's the film's detached tone. As he often does, Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly in his Great Movies essay: "[Barry Lyndon] is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness. … Barry Lyndon is aggressive in its cool detachment. It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately excellence."
Later, Ebert asks: "How many directors would have had Kubrick's confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man's rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? We don't simply see Kubrick's movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on—unless we're so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is). There is no other way to see Barry than the way Kubrick sees him." So let's build on that. Ed, how does Kubrick see Barry Lyndon?
EH: That's a very apt question. Kubrick has, I think, a very strong attitude about Barry. There's ambiguity and subtlety in Barry Lyndon, but nevertheless Kubrick does seem to have a very particular attitude that he wants to communicate about his main character—and indeed about all the characters in this film. Though this attitude is apparent throughout, I think it's most obvious in the succinct "epilogue," a sentence of onscreen text that sums up the film's thrust perfectly. Such textual codas are often (lazily) used to track the progress of characters after the film's action ends, but in this case Kubrick's narrator has already noted that there is nothing further to say about Barry's adventures after the film's final image of him, limping into a carriage with one leg, fated to disappear into a long, sad decline.
Instead of wrapping up loose ends, the epilogue provides an elegantly stated moral takeaway: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now." That's the key to the film, and to Kubrick's attitude about Barry. It's a radical historical perspective that upturns all the artificial distinctions and boundaries raised by society and emphasizes the common humanity of all these people, most of them cruel and petty and greedy and foolish, whatever their class or background. They fight and scrape for some material rewards, for a noble title or riches, for the esteem granted by a lordship or a fancy estate, but they are all forgotten by time regardless. They all die and once in the ground there's nothing to distinguish the lords from the low-born, the kings from the con men, the sophisticated ladies from the farmers' wives.
In that respect, Barry Lyndon is the story of a man's wasted life. To answer your question, Kubrick sees Barry as a foolish man who never managed to grasp what's really important in life. He spends his whole life pursuing material rewards, claiming to be taking the long view—he desires security and comfort for his beloved son—but really existing in a very shortsighted manner. The film is about how petty and inconsequential life can be if we allow it to be, and about the folly of living with an eye towards posterity. In the pursuit of wealth and social status, Barry never seems to realize just how miserable his life has become. Kubrick is a master of depicting boredom and ugliness, and the nearly silent scenes of Barry and his wife endlessly shuffling papers and settling bills capture the emptiness of a life devoted exclusively to the material. The film's epilogue negates everything else that happens in the film; it's as though Kubrick is underlining just how little anything Barry does really matters in any larger sense. Kubrick sees Barry as a tragic figure, and the tragedy is not so much that he doesn't get what he wants, but that even if he had gotten it, it wouldn't have meant much, it wouldn't have made his life full or meaningful.
JB: I think that's quite right, provided we recognize that Barry does wind up finding momentary fulfillment in being a father—perhaps the one thing he didn't yearn for as a young man—only to have that meaningfulness taken away from him. While I wholly agree that the epilogue does well to illustrate Kubrick's view of Barry, there's a two-shot sequence late in the film that is equally telling, and nearly as succinct.
After Barry loses his composure and beats his stepson, which causes him to lose his fortune and social standing, Kubrick cuts from a slow reverse zoom of Barry and his son (David Morley's Bryan) quietly fishing together in a small rowboat to a fairly tight shot of father and son sitting together and reading. It's an intimate shot: a book on Bryan's lap and Bryan on Barry's lap. Together they flip through the pages and speak in whispered tones, Barry's smile broad and warm, their mutual affection unmistakable. After a few seconds, Kubrick cuts to a wide shot of the same tableau. There are Barry and Bryan, like before, but now the intimacy of their moment is contrasted by the ornateness of their surroundings. The wide shot reveals that Barry and Bryan are sitting on a couch perhaps 15 feet long, in front of a rug that's just as wide, beneath a painting that's just as tall. And yet the massive room they're sitting in feels, if anything, underfurnished. This shot, for me, illustrates the emptiness of all of Barry's previous pursuits better than any other. Barry spends the film looking for wealth and status, but in truth all he needed to be happy was a small bit of quiet space in which to be a father to an adoring son.
The great tragedy is that Barry never seems to realize this. Except when he's playing father to Bryan, Barry is a man without a genuine identity. He begins the film as an Irishman named Redmond Barry and soon is fighting for the British, eluding his scandalous past. He then escapes his military service and briefly plays husband to a German woman he meets during his flight. He then comes across some Prussian officers and pretends to be a British lieutenant. He's then exposed as a fraud and ends up in a Prussian soldier's uniform instead. He's then sent to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, at which time he's told to pose as a Hungarian, but instead he admits his Irish roots to the chevalier and becomes a double-agent, meanwhile posing as a simple butler to help the chevalier cheat at cards. Barry then poses as the chevalier in order that the two might escape Prussian surveillance and continue their cons indefinitely. Finally, he meets and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Barenson) and thus becomes Barry Lyndon.