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.
Near the start of the film’s second chapter, Barry sits in the back of a carriage with Lady Lyndon, smoking on a pipe with a smug expression on his face that exhibits his pride over fooling all of those around him. But mostly he’s fooling himself. In the carriage directly behind Barry rides his stepson who sees his mother’s new husband for exactly what he is: “a common opportunist.” Barry might accept opportunist, but he wants to be anything but common. It’s not enough to spoil Bryan rotten; Barry regales his young son with stories of his heroism in war, spinning a clearly bullshit tale in which he’s the first man over the wall before cutting off the heads of 19 men while wounding several others. Bryan loves the tale so much that he requests it on his deathbed. And thus Barry’s fraudulence extends into the one thing in his life that was otherwise pure: his love of his son.
EH: Yes, it does, and one of the curious things about the movie is that for some time Barry is defrauding even the audience, at least in part because Kubrick keeps Barry’s motivations and thoughts somewhat hidden and obscure. Barry’s pursuit of Lady Lyndon is probably the turning point in that respect. His courtship of her initially appears as sincere to the audience as it presumably does to the woman herself. Barry seems genuinely fascinated with her and attracted to her, pursuing her during a card game and keeping constant company with her thereafter. Although the narrator makes some typically snarky remarks about Barry continuing his rise in the world and gaining advantage through his intimacy with the lady, there is otherwise very little hint that this is anything other than a romance, albeit one that takes place largely offscreen.
The wedding helps to disintegrate those romantic notions, because it’s staged as such a joyless affair, with Kubrick’s characteristic flat affect and ironic distance. The preacher, with a bland and expressionless face, drily recounts all the church-sanctioned justifications for marriage, but love doesn’t enter into the equation. Instead, he suggests that marriage is important mainly as a “defense against sin,” a way to avoid fornication, which in a very different way is as utilitarian and unsentimental a view of marriage as Barry’s own perspective on it. And then the carriage ride exposes the true nature of Barry’s ambition: having achieved his goal of wooing and marrying Lady Lyndon, he lets the mask drop, both to her and to the film’s audience, by coolly blowing smoke in her face while the narrator informs us that Barry soon views his wife as little more than decorative furniture. Like Barry’s new wife, only then do we really grasp the full extent of Barry’s emptiness and deception, only then do we realize just what kind of a man he actually is.
Shortly after this scene, Kubrick cuts from Barry and Lady Lyndon in bed, cradling their newborn son—“her ladyship presented Barry with a son,” is the narrator’s stiff, emotionless way of putting it—directly to Barry in the midst of an orgy, making out with a pair of topless girls. Kubrick then cuts back to Barry’s wife lying with her older son resting his head on her shoulder and her new baby in a cradle that she’s distractedly rocking. Both Lady Lyndon and her son look narcotized and distant, staring blankly past the camera without seeming to see anything. The composition is static and still, with only one of Kubrick’s slow backwards tracking shots introducing some movement into the frame, pulling away from the figures to enhance the sense of absence and emotional deadness. The narration juxtaposes Lady Lyndon’s zombie-like demeanor against Barry’s belief that she should be taking joy in the raising of her sons while Barry concerns himself with society and pleasure. By this point, Barry, who started out as an unfortunate young man struggling to better himself, has become the villain of his own story.
JB: He’s become the villain, yes, but it’s important to note that he’s never the hero. Over the first half of the picture, Barry is repeatedly shown to be a fool—and his foolishness is exacerbated by his lack of self-awareness (he doesn’t realize he’s a fool). It all begins with that early scene of Barry playing cards with his cousin Nora, for whom he has a crush. The narrator suggests that love flows “instinctively from a man…like a bird sings,” but not for Barry. Nora stuffs a ribbon in her cleavage and urges Barry to find and remove it, saying she’ll think very little of him if he doesn’t, but Barry is so intimidated by the moment that he gives up without trying. Only when Nora takes his hand and places it on her breast does Barry locate the ribbon, but even then he can’t quite find his manhood. At this point, Nora notes that Barry’s hand is trembling, and when he suggests that it’s due to excitement, not fear, Nora calls him on it. “You’re a liar,” she says, and as she bends down to kiss him, Barry closes his eyes and waits submissively.
It’s a testament to Barry’s foolishness that his uncle arranges to con him through a fake duel with Captain Quin (Leonard Rossiter) in order to get him out of the way. And it’s further testament to Barry’s foolishness that Captain Feeny (Arthur O’Sullivan) so quickly sizes him up as a ripe target for a robbery. But the best evidence of Barry’s ineptitude is found in his interactions with Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger). We can tell from their first meeting, when Barry says he’s riding toward a town that in fact is behind him, that he’s in over his head, but Barry’s deception fully unravels later on, in a private candlelit conversation with Potzdorf in which Barry seems to think he has the upper hand. What’s telling isn’t that Barry is exposed as liar, imposter and deserter, it’s how he’s exposed, through what the narrator describes as a combination of “questions and flattery.” Essentially, Barry is so full of himself that when Potzdorf says that all he knows of England is that it’s the “bravest country in the world, and that we’re really lucky to have such allies,” Barry doesn’t detect that he’s being led on. Indeed, even when Potzdorf summons a sergeant to perform an arrest, Barry momentarily believes he can still talk his way out of the jam; up until then, he’s found himself quite convincing.
Of course, later on, Barry will indeed con Potzdorf, with the guidance of the Chevalier de Balibari. And he’ll con Lady Lyndon. And he’ll con his son with stories of heroism in war. So Barry isn’t completely lacking in cleverness. But his weakness is his inflated self-perception. He’s so convinced that he’s a man of intelligence, grace and stature that he assumes everyone around him thinks so, too.
EH: Barry is a paragon of self-deception, and at the heart of this deception is a popular democratic ideal that he’s fully internalized, the idea of class mobility. Barry, for all his faults and follies, is a real believer in the possibility of advancement; he’s an American-style social striver in an earlier era and another continent, who thinks that he can force himself upwards from poverty and ruin to the highest strata of society. In that sense, Barry isn’t just a fool or a villain—he’s also a victim. A victim, primarily, of a social structure in which his ambitions and his ideals would be impossible to realize even if he had gone about things in a more intelligent manner. Kubrick isn’t just crafting a portrait of a fool, which would be all too easy. He’s suggesting that Barry’s particular brand of foolishness is a symptom of a society that restricts the opportunities of the lower classes at every opportunity.
Barry learns this lesson most ruinously when he contrives to earn a title for himself through bribery and flattery, believing that he can propel himself into a lordship and earn the respect and status he so desperately wants. Instead, he destroys his wife’s fortune for naught, setting up the devastating sequence of tragedies in the film’s final act. It’s telling that when Barry assembles a troop of soldiers to fight in the Americas, hoping to impress the English king, the blunt, somewhat sarcastic response is that he should gather more troops and go fight himself. To the end, Barry is seen as good enough to be a soldier but not to be a lord. Earlier in the film, the scenes of Barry at war, first with the English army and then with the Prussians, establish that these wars are motivated by upper-class concerns, rooted in the interests of lords and kings, but fought by the poor, by criminals and conscripts. The armies are assembled by force and trickery: some people are literally kidnapped from their homes and forced into duty, while others are offered some small amount of money to serve in the (slim) hope of escaping poverty. When Barry is recruited into the army, the recruiter says that they need new men to replace those who have retired with a pension, a laughable and transparent ruse. But Barry, always a fool, and with few enough prospects anyway, truly believes that the army will be his route out of poverty, his first step towards respectability and prestige.
One crucial battle of Barry’s brief but bloody military career is a skirmish over a section of road that the English army wants to cross. As the narrator says, this is not the kind of epic battle that the history books immortalize. It is a petty, insignificant exchange, a fight over a small strip of land of dubious importance, one with little ultimate impact except for the men who die during its course. Kubrick’s compositions emphasize the absurdity of this style of battle, as the English soldiers march solidly forward towards the enemy lines, not breaking ranks as the enemy fires on them, many men dropping to the ground with each barrage as the men next to them continue marching forward without even looking around them. Kubrick maintains a characteristic stoic distance that emphasizes just how meaningless any individual life is in the midst of this absurd, anti-human war machine. Men fall and die and their comrades simply step over them, eyes locked straight ahead on the enemy, marching towards death with the determination of men whose lives aren’t valued any higher than the cost of a bullet. Barry, through some outrageous luck and his own oversized ambition, eventually does transcend this low level, but in a deeper sense he never quite escapes this devaluation of his life and his worth. Even when he is being honored by the Prussian army, the officer who presents him with his award can’t resist delivering a speech about what an anomaly his bravery was, about how Barry remains low class trash in spite of his achievements. Actions don’t matter nearly as much as origins. That’s the dominant ideology of this society, and though Barry occasionally manages to circumvent its rigid boundaries, they will ultimately suffocate him.
JB: Considering all that we’ve said about Barry thus far, it’s probably past time for discussing the actor who plays him: Ryan O’Neal. It’s certainly an interesting casting choice, perhaps more so in retrospect than at the time, and that’s saying something. When Barry Lyndon was released in 1975, O’Neal had been a regular on TV’s Peyton Place, and he’d starred in one of the most successful modern romances in cinema history, 1970’s Love Story, so he was hardly anonymous, but I’m not sure there was anything about his early career that suggested that he was on the path to playing complex leading men—although perhaps I’m letting my awareness of O’Neal’s post-Barry Lyndon roles overly influence that analysis. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that O’Neal’s performance here is an outlier in his career, a rare opportunity to work with strong material and a talented director.
That said, despite the fact that Barry Lyndon is almost always thought of as a Kubrickian achievement, I think O’Neal’s performance is one of its great strengths. O’Neal is what you might call memorably forgettable here. By that I mean that it’s impossible to think of Barry Lyndon without thinking about O’Neal, because indeed O’Neal’s character is the focal point of nearly every scene in a lengthy film that even by title alone announces itself as a one-man character study, and yet O’Neal’s Barry doesn’t dominate our consciousness as a distinct character. He isn’t Charles Foster Kane, or Michael Corleone, or T.E. Lawrence, or Daniel Plainview; indeed, Barry often feels like the supporting player in his own film. Opposite Nora, Quin, Potzdorf, his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) and so on, our attention is repeatedly drawn to those opposite him.
Barry is a blank. I’m not an actor, but I suspect that’s much harder to play than it seems. O’Neal isn’t totally without big acting moments—his brawl with his stepson and his tearful exchange with his dying son leap to mind—but for the most part his performance is quiet, reserved, inward, even when Barry is puffing out his chest with pride or arrogance. It’s an approach that serves the character well, underlining Barry’s lack of original character, right down to that light Irish accent that sounds as if Barry was never fully invested in his roots. O’Neal is, in essence, an actor playing an actor. And what’s remarkable is that while Barry is always in the midst of a performance, O’Neal never seems to be.
EH: O’Neal’s unshowy performance is indeed another example of this film’s admirable restraint. In terms of performances, O’Neal’s portrayal of Barry reminds me very much of Tom Cruise’s turn as the similarly blank, unsympathetic Dr. Bill in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Barry and Bill are both intentionally flat protagonists whose emotional range is rather stunted, and who seem rather clueless and lost when faced with the realization that they are not, in fact, the centers of their respective universes. Like Bill, over the course of this film Barry must come to terms with a cruel world that foils all his plans and continually shatters his illusion of himself as a strong, clever schemer. Both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon are Kubrick’s stabs at masculine pride, though the two films go about tearing down their male archetypes in very different fashions.
If Eyes Wide Shut is all about male identity as defined by sex, Barry Lyndon is about worldly masculine ambition, the desire for power and money. That’s because Bill has accomplished the ideal that Barry can only haplessly reach for: Bill is rich and successful, his life furnished with all the conventional signifiers of status and prestige. Bill doesn’t need to grasp for a higher status the way Barry does, but the fact that he’s still striving for something more, that he still feels unfulfilled, suggests that this is a neverending quest. Bill is a Barry-like figure who has attained what he thought he wanted and now channels his unquenchable desire into sexuality, desperately trying to feel fulfilled in the same way that Barry is continually setting new goals for himself in his one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts to climb the social ladder. In contrast to Bill, who is engulfed by sexuality everywhere he turns, Barry, with the exception of his supposedly genuine feelings for Nora, seems ambivalent about sex. He pursues the lovely Lady Lyndon but as soon as he has her he wants very little to do with her. Sex is a means to an end for Barry; he defines himself not by his sexuality but by his ambition, by his desire for social and economic status. Bill, who has the social and economic success that Barry craves, instead feels inadequate in his sexuality. It’s as though these blank-faced, remote men are yawning voids who feel a profound absence in their lives and attempt to fill it with whatever they think is missing. If they achieve success in one area, it only makes them aware of what they lack elsewhere.
JB: It might be a bit misleading to suggest that Barry is ambivalent about sex, considering that once he’s married we see him cavorting with a few women not his wife. Barry uses sex as a means to an end with Lady Lyndon, sure, but he also seems to view wanton extramarital sex as a status symbol—although I agree it’s a desire for status, not for sex itself, that seems to give Barry his hard-on. Of course, broadly speaking, you’re correct that Barry is seeking to gain the same kind of status and prestige that Bill already has in Eyes Wide Shut. The biggest difference between those two lead characters is that while both of them operate as if they are the center of their universe, and while both of them are surprised whenever someone around them sees them as anything less than that, Barry knows exactly what he wants, while Bill spends the majority of Eyes Wide Shut more or less pretending to himself that he knows what he wants. (Bill, too, is actually driven by something other than sex itself: a need to reassure himself that he can have whatever he wants, thus living up to the status he has achieved.)
Certainly Barry is the center of this film’s universe, and yet we’re constantly reminded of his smallness, his insignificance. And that leads us to perhaps the second most significant “character” in this film: the narrator. It’s impossible for me to imagine how Barry Lyndon would function without “him.” Voiced by Michael Hordern, the narration has a children’s storybook quality that on first viewing conjured in my mind images of Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Wood. (Turns out I wasn’t far off: Hordern eventually went on to narrate a TV adaptation of Paddington Bear.) The narration is quaint, soothing, sympathetic, and yet at the same time it can be wry and critical, commenting on the action in a way that provides necessary context or sharpens our focus. It’s often argued that filmmakers should strive to “show not tell” the thoughts and emotions of their characters, but Barry Lyndon is a film that finds a happy marriage doing both. The narration never serves as a replacement for portrayal, it simply enhances it, allowing Kubrick to impart great emotional depth into scenes that, due to the story’s broad and episodic nature, often have very little opportunity for physical build-up.
A terrific example is the scene in which Barry first meets the Chevalier de Balibari, having been sent by Potzdorf as a spy. Barry isn’t supposed to know English, but once in the presence of the chevalier, Barry is overcome by the chevalier’s regal appearance and nobility, and by an accent that reminds him of home, and he finds it impossible to continue with the charade. These details are imparted to us almost solely from the narration; Kubrick’s camera simply shows Barry’s pensive face. But through the combination of the narration and physical action, the scene delivers a sharp emotional punch. “Those who have never been out of their country know little what it is to hear a friendly voice in captivity,” the narrator says, as if admitting that even he is at a loss to explain completely the tearful scene that follows, when Barry drops his disguise and the chevalier consoles him. But in Barry’s pained face, we feel what the words can’t describe. In this scene and others, the narration is crucial to our basic understanding of what’s happening, and it’s also a key to a deeper understanding.
EH: What I love about the narration in Barry Lyndon is that, as you say, it breaks what is often considered to be one of the central rules of screenwriting and writing in general: show, don’t tell. That idea is sometimes considered such a hard-and-fast rule that voiceovers are disparaged on principle, but here Kubrick demonstrates just how powerful and effective a voiceover, even or especially one that tells us outright what the characters are feeling, can be. The narrator is crucial to the film because he provides a perspective outside of Barry. The narrator, with his removed, quasi-omniscient perspective, is evidence that Barry’s delusion of himself as the center of the world is just that, a delusion. The narrator’s irony is necessary because it undermines Barry’s earnestness at every turn. Throughout his rise to high society, Barry keeps telling himself that he’ll never again allow himself to be lowered or prevented from attaining what he believes is his deserved status. But we only hear this through the narrator, whose wry, detached tones—and the repetition of this mantra after each of Barry’s failures—suggests just how ridiculous Barry is, just how distorted his vision of the world actually is.
If the film were narrated by Barry, or if Barry made his feelings known more directly, there would be no distance from Barry’s skewed perspective on his own life. The narrator allows Kubrick—and the audience—to observe Barry’s flounderings from a greater distance, to see his self-deceptions and blatant manipulations for what they are. We feel for Barry, but not in the same intimate way that we would in a film that was more closely aligned with his point of view. Instead, we’re encouraged not only to sympathize with Barry and to share his emotions, but to understand him; in that sense, you’re absolutely right, the voiceover is the path leading to a deeper understanding of Barry the man and the social forces that define and drive him. It strikes me that Woody Allen definitely took a page from Kubrick’s book when making Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which similarly uses a wry, detached voiceover to obliquely comment on the misguidedness of his characters’ strivings.
The narration isn’t the only way in which Kubrick undercuts Barry’s progress into high society. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one where Barry, in a rage over his stepson Lord Bullingdon’s open insults, leaps onto the young man and beats him during a concert. Despite the strong emotions that provoke Barry’s actions, this is a comic set piece, as the assembled nobles go slipping and falling in an attempt to break the two men apart. One man slides across the floor towards the camera, and it ends with all the powdered wigs in a football pileup on top of Barry. This scene shares with the narration a wry tone that finds the comedy and the absurdity in emotions and incidents that are deadly serious for the people involved.
JB: Barry’s attack on his stepson reminds me of Daniel Plainview’s brawl with Eli Sunday at the end of There Will Be Blood. It’s violent, terrifying, oversized and, yes, at the same time it’s hilariously absurd. Kubrick seems to delight in the sight of dandified men trying to mix it up in a scuffle, and so after Barry gets in a few licks, Kubrick hangs around to watch all the other men ineptly trying to break up the fight, giving us a broad shot full of wigs, powdered faces and stockings running up to the knee churning in a rugby pile of immaculately dressed men.
In addition to exposing Barry as a “common opportunist” in a nobleman’s clothing, Kubrick seems to be skewering the supposed nobility of the era at large. I mentioned earlier the scene in which Barry meets the chevalier, and that’s another good example. The narrator says that Barry was swayed by the “splendor” of the chevalier’s appearance and the “nobility” of his manner, but to our eyes there’s nothing striking about the chevalier whatsoever. His painted pink cheeks are especially clownish. The painted moles on his face seem randomly placed. And then there’s his eye patch. Splendor? Hardly. As for his manner, the chevalier seems less noble than spiritless, bored. This is what Barry finds glamorous? Why? Only a silly people—the kind of people who would give their young son a sheep-drawn carriage to ride on his birthday and then use that same sheep-drawn carriage as a hearse when the son dies—would dress and behave this way, Kubrick seems to be implying. And, furthermore, only an especially silly people would duel.
Barry Lyndon is punctuated by no less than three duels: the one that opens the film, in which Barry’s father is killed; the one that sends Barry on the lam, in which Barry appears to kill Captain Quin; and the one near the end of the film, in which Barry and Lord Bullingdon seem determined not to kill one another. Each scene has a slightly different mood—from swift and deadly to drawn out and inconsequential (relatively speaking)—but each scene highlights the absurdities of dueling, and thus the foolishness of any people who would partake in the ritual. In the first duel, the absurdity of the activity is made clear when the narrator notes that Barry’s father’s promising life was cut short because of something as trivial as “the sale of some horses.” The stakes are even more ridiculous in the second duel, between Barry and Captain Quin, because if Barry loses the duel he’s potentially dead, but by winning the duel he is cast out by the very family that he hoped to impress so that he might continue his love affair with his cousin; a true no-win situation. The greatest absurdity of this duel, though, turns out to be the revelation that Barry’s duel with Quin wasn’t a duel at all but a ruse designed to trick the ignorant youngster into leaving town.
As for the final duel, Kubrick milks it for all the tension he can: showing the guns being carefully loaded, observing the pre-duel coin-toss, watching the men take their places 10 paces apart, letting the referee’s instructions echo through the cavernous space, all while menacing strings and kettle drums of the score groan and pound in a steady rhythm. But there’s absurdity here, too, in the constantly cooing pigeons, in the accidental discharge of Lord Bullingdon’s gun and in the way Barry bravely and nobly faces his death only to be shot in the leg, leading to a lot of undignified moaning. You mentioned earlier the “all are equal now” epilogue, and sure enough there are clues throughout Barry Lyndon that this era, like this main character, wasn’t nearly as special, noble or otherwise impressive as the people within it seemed to believe.
EH: The duels are indeed one of the primary vehicles for Kubrick’s satire of the “noble” class and their silly, artificial rules for living. As you say, the film opens with a duel, which immediately establishes the absurdity of staking one’s life over minor slights of “honor,” so that a life is erased in mere seconds. This absurdity calls into question the whole concept of honor as it’s understood by the society depicted in this film—duels as presented by Kubrick are not so much showcases for honor and nobility but evidence of fragile egos forced by convention to respond to even the slightest of imagined insults. Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, released 10 years earlier, similarly skewers the aristocratic class for its eagerness to waste lives in petty duels: the main character remembers that his father once fought 10 duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument, a hilarious formulation that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Barry Lyndon.
The interesting thing about Kubrick’s approach to duels is that, as absurd and wasteful as he makes them seem, he doesn’t eliminate the genuine tension and emotion of these showdowns, at least in the two duels in which Barry takes part. When Barry faces Captain Quin, Kubrick emphasizes the fear and hesitance of the duelists, who quiver and tremble, barely disguising their terror at facing death. The romanticized ideal of dueling—stoic nobleman bravely staking their lives to maintain their honor—is quite different from the way Kubrick presents dueling, as this pointless face-off between shaky-handed men who stare at one another in abject horror. Quin’s wide-eyed expression is both poignant and comical—but tips more towards the latter in light of the eventual revelation that he knew the duel was a farce all along, so in hindsight we realize he was scared not of death but of being shot with a blank.
In Barry’s second duel, Kubrick draws out the preparation for the showdown with such portentousness that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The martial strings drone in the background, blending with the cooing of the birds and the papery rustle of wings as pigeons flutter around the barn. The scene is solemn, even ritualistic, with thin slit windows and crosses carved into the stone walls behind the duelists, letting in slivers of bluish light that make the scene seem holy and eerie, a place of worship rather than a place of idiotic death and maiming. The long shots of the barn with the two men setting up to shoot each other are especially breathtaking, finding a weird kind of beauty in this slow, mechanical ritual. The aesthetic gloss of this scene, however, only makes it all the more startling when the duel itself quickly descends into comedy. The arcane rules for this particular duel, where the men take turns shooting each other, with chance determining who shoots first, make it especially silly, and then Lord Bullingdon’s accidental firing of his gun into the ground—and his terrified, little-boy-in-trouble expression afterwards—only exacerbate the lunatic surrealism of this practice.
JB: By the time Barry enters into that final duel, he’s seemingly lost everything. We’ve seen him shunned from his old social circle. We’ve watched his son die. And then, in the duel with his stepson, Barry is shot by Lord Bullingdon even after he spares his stepson by intentionally firing into the ground. Barry’s sacrificed shot seems less a matter of etiquette (you wasted a shot, so I will) and more like an olive branch, an admission of guilt, an act of atonement. Barry knows that he has treated his stepson poorly, so he understands Lord Bullingdon’s rage, much like Captain Quin must have understood Barry’s rage all those years ago. There’s a sense when Barry fires his shot into the ground that he hopes Lord Bullingdon will shoot him dead and end his misery, but when Lord Bullingdon announces that he has not received “satisfaction” there’s a subtle expression of surprise that flashes across Barry’s face, as if the last thing he imagined is that Lord Bullingdon would continue with the duel after Barry spared him.
Of course, Barry’s ultimate fate in the duel is the worst thing he can imagine. He isn’t spared. He isn’t killed. He’s maimed, blasted in the leg. In the next scene, the doctor examines Barry’s leg and says he’ll have to amputate. “Lose the leg? What for?” Barry asks. “The simple answer to that is ’to save your life,’” the doctor replies. This, it turns out, is the low point for Barry. Suddenly it registers for him that there’s no coming back from this duel, the way he’d reinvented himself all those years ago. He’ll forever be crippled, and he’ll forever have a physical reminder of his sins. And as Barry comes to this realization, weeping in bed, a church bell tolls in the background.
The next scene finds Lord Bullingdon heading to the Lyndon estate by carriage, hatching a plan by which to get Barry’s mother out of the house before he steps foot through the door. While Lord Bullingdon schemes, the same priest who married Barry and Lady Lyndon can’t suppress a smile, realizing in that moment that Barry has been cast out by a man who shows signs of being as conniving as he was. Kubrick seems to be reminding us that when one selfish asshole steps out of the spotlight, another one comes along to take his place.
EH: That sense of progression is important because Barry Lyndon is, in the end, as much about society as a whole as it is about the one man who gives the film its title. All of this maneuvering for wealth and prestige doesn’t actually make anyone happy, neither the victors nor the losers like Barry. In the last scene of the film, Lady Lyndon and her son somberly shuffle through piles of paper for Lady Lyndon to sign, the endless bills and paperwork associated with their life of privilege and success. This scene intentionally mirrors the earlier one in which Lady Lyndon and Barry joylessly went through these same paper rituals: there’s no pleasure, no contentment, in the management of the massive wealth for which these people fight so tirelessly.
Instead, there’s only loss and sadness. Kubrick alternates closeups of Lady Lyndon and her son in the final moments of the film, focusing on the moment when she has to sign for the annuity paid to Barry to keep him away from the family. Lady Lyndon seems lost in thought, and her red-rimmed eyes, used to crying, well up a bit. But there’s also the very slightest of smiles dancing briefly at the corners of her mouth, as though she’s remembering whatever small happy moments the couple might have had together, or the son they’d so loved. Those fleeting moments of pleasure are ultimately lost in the struggle to live, not for the moment, not for the sake of enjoying life, but for accumulating reputation and wealth for posterity. Barry Lyndon demonstrates the folly of such an attitude, and it does so by completely embodying it in Barry, an empty vessel filled almost entirely with base urges and stupidity. Kubrick harshly satirizes this man and the grabby approach to life he represents, but more remarkably he also makes us feel for Barry, lamenting the waste of time and life that disappear into the vacuum of Barry’s ambition. That’s why the final moments of the film are so devastating, so sad, embodying in the exchange of glances between Lady Lyndon and her son a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and lost opportunities.
JB: It really does feel like a lifetime. The coupling of the narration and the deliberate pace give Barry Lyndon a decidedly novel-esque feel, as if we’re paging through Barry’s life in Thackeray’s original. Like so much of Kubrick’s work, the atmosphere of the whole is more telling than any specific gesture, line or scene. Barry Lyndon is an experience more than a plot, wrapping us up in its colorful panoramas and moody candlelit closeups to create a precise sense of time and space. If it’s best remembered for the way it looks, perhaps that’s fitting, given that it’s about a man who at his height only appears remarkable. But clearly there is more to Barry Lyndon than lush visuals. It’s a film with character about a man who lacks it.
Nevertheless, the praise for the film’s visual splendor is hardly misplaced. Kubrick gives us a bland character in a movie dominated by visuals that are anything but. To quote Scorsese again, Barry Lyndon really is “one exquisitely beautiful image after another,” and it’s the consistency of those breathtaking compositions that gives this deliberately methodical film its undeniable momentum. It’s not a film one is drawn to so much as a film one can’t break away from. For all of Barry Lyndon’s cool detachment, the obvious care of Kubrick’s filmmaking gives it a strange warmth.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.1.5
The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.
Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.
In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.
Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.
The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.
Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.2.5
Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?
At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.
The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.
Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.
One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident
Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.2
Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.
It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.
As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.
While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.
Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón
Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.
Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.
Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.
Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.
If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.
Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.
Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.
More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.
And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”
Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects
Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.2
Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.
The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.
Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.
By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.
Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.
In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.
And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.
But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.
That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)
The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg
Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973