Sunday, 21 August 2016
Off to the cinema to see Barry Lyndon, a costume drama from 1975 starring actor Ryan O’Neal, director Stanley Kubrick, cinematographer John Alcott, and also the landscapes of Suffolk, Oxfordshire, County Kildare, and Wiltshire, among others.
Back in 1975 the film bored audiences and critics alike, although it went on to win a clutch of Academy Awards in the technical categories, notably for art direction and cinematography. The cats who dug Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and A Clockwork Orange were disappointed that he had chosen to direct a stodgy costume drama, and I imagine that fans of Ryan O’Neal were unimpressed. The film adds some pistol duels to Thackeray's story and smooths out the character of Redmond Barry, but he is still a thoroughly unlikable man.
"I do think the women like a little violence of temper, and think no worse of a husband who exercises his authority pretty smartly. I had got my Lady into such a terror about me, that when I smiled, it was quite an era of happiness to her; and if I beckoned to her, she would come fawning up to me like a dog."
Did Ryan O’Neal have fans? He is one of the worst actors to have been a major Hollywood star. Robert Redford was driven throughout his career by a terrible fear that people would assume he was a dull, empty-headed lunk; O’Neal appears not to have been concerned by this. After the success of Love Story in 1970 O’Neal had the good fortune to fall in with Peter Bogdanovich, who directed him in What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon, which turned out to be the high point of both their careers. Barry Lyndon was O’Neal’s last starring role in a major Hollywood film. Lots of actors have fallen from major stardom into obscurity, but O’Neal’s fall was unusually thorough. His post-stardom films almost seem to have been created as vehicles for tax avoidance, so obscure are they, and I admit that until checking his IMDB profile I was unaware of the existence of So Fine, Green Ice, Oliver’s Story, Partners, in fact almost everything he has done since A Bridge Too Far in 1978.
Stanley Kubrick seemed to like two kinds of actors. Blank slates, and vibrant character types - extremes of one kind or the other. Thus 2001 starred a pair of bland nobodies, whereas A Clockwork Orange had an electric performance from the unhinged Malcolm McDowell; Kubrick followed Lyndon with The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson almost literally chewed the scenery. Kubrick wasn't interested in subtle nuance. During his time in England he built up a small company of actors that he returned to, notably Leonard Rossiter, who was a Soviet bureaucrat in 2001. In that film he was unctuous, whereas in Lyndon he is a tightly-wound, foppish eccentric whose military service seems to have driven him mad.
We learn very little about him, or indeed about any of the film’s characters, but I have always assumed that Rossiter's Captain Quin was a small-town bank manager or landlord who had dreamed of military glory but found himself out of his depth, as if Reginald Perrin had fallen through a timewarp to the 1750s. During his duel with Barry he almost seems to hide behind the pistol:
Also appearing from Kubrick's company are Patrick Magee as a wiley card sharp, and Steven Berkoff, who has a very small role as a toff who needs persuasion to pay his bills. They stand out just enough to be memorable but not so much that they steal the film. Barry Lyndon is an episodic tale, and very few of the characters are in it for very long, so I suspect that Kubrick wanted to make sure that they stood out in the limited screen time they had. The film is full of microperformances that nonetheless remain in the memory. The most extreme example is Frank Middlemass, who only has one scene - he dies! - but there are also good turns from Hardy Krüger, Godfrey Quigley (from A Clockwork Orange), and Murray Melvin as a sinister chaplain.
And Leon Vitali, who almost entirely retired from acting thereafter to become part of Kubrick’s extended behind-the-scenes quasi-family. On the whole the character roles overshadow the stars.
Whilst writing the preceding paragraphs I had almost forgotten about Ryan O’Neal. In the mid-1970s opulent costume dramas were en vogue, and Lyndon was marketed as a grand romance, but it’s a very poor date movie. O’Neal is a cad throughout and even when he wins the girl of his dreams the romance is perfunctory and he doesn’t care about her. Barry Lyndon does not dream of girls, he dreams of money and status and power. Throughout the film he is a man’s man who only seems happy in the company of other men. He is good with his fists and genuinely brave in battle, neither as cowardly nor ultimately as smart as Harry Flashman, and perhaps in the hands of another creative team his story might have been a happy one. Kubrick was not interested in happy endings however, and the film undercuts Barry at every stage. He makes a poor impression in his very first scene (has a man ever been so oblivious?), and even when he is being heroic there remains an ambiguity to his actions. In rescuing his captain he deserts the field of battle, and when he later chooses to run back into a burning room to save the life of a man who had earlier wronged him his act of heroism is staged as if it was physical comedy.
It is hard to take Ryan O’Neal seriously as an action star. He was 33 when the film was being made, and has an odd face that is simultaneously boyish and mature; in the early parts of the film he comes across as a backwards middle-aged mummy's boy rather than a carefree young man.
The girl of his dreams. The film was marketed as a romance between Ryan O’Neal and his co-star, Marisa Berenson, but they barely talk to each other. In fact they never have a proper conversation and only exchange a handful of words. I felt sorry for Marisa Berenson. For most of her time in the film she is called upon to be the passive recipient of Barry Lyndon’s apathy. She is only allowed to act a couple of times, but she grabs her chances with gusto. She began her career as a model and is of course unutterably gorgeous, and I wonder if she was allowed to keep the costumes because she wears them well. I have seen bad performances from models-turned-actors; with the limited opportunity she has Berenson does well, and has an undeniable screen presence even when she is merely called upon to gaze at the camera with a melancholic expression. Alas the film did nothing for her career, although by all accounts she has never been short of money.
I could write an entire essay on the feminist implications of Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s films were aimed squarely at an audience of young men; they had simple plots, exaggerated characters, some cool hardware and lots of machismo, but it was all filled with a sense that power is nothing without control, and control is impossible in a chaotic universe. Almost invariably in a Stanley Kubrick film the strong men turn out to be fools, or weaklings, or inadequate; Barry Lyndon is the tale of a man who allows power to go to his head and is then destroyed by fate and forces beyond his control. It has almost the same basic plot as A Clockwork Orange, although whereas Alex is crushed by bureaucracy Barry destroys himself.
The film also reminds me of The Long Good Friday. They both tell the tale of a self-made man who reaches for his dreams and falls short. Harold Shand dreams of regenerating the East End and becoming a legitimate businessman, a British version of Donald Trump, whereas Barry Lyndon wants to achieve financial independence by becoming a peer. It is fascinating to imagine how they might have pulled it off, or at least how they might have learned to accept what fate had given them. Shand crosses the IRA, but rather than throw himself at their mercy he decides to wipe them out, with disastrous consequences; Lyndon’s restless drive and determination does him no good in a domestic setting, and his attempt to ingratiate himself with high society ends with failure because he is out of his depth. The film implies that Barry’s conniving and swindling are really no different from the conniving and swindling of the upper classes, and the book is even more explicit about this:
"They cry fie now upon men engaged in play; but I should like to know how much more honourable their modes of livelihood are than ours. The broker of the Exchange who bulls and bears, and buys and sells, and dabbles with lying loans, and trades on State secrets, what is he but a gamester?"
Barry Lyndon only has three major female characters. Lady Lyndon is passive; Barry’s mother genuinely cares for her son and is the voice of cold reason. She comes across as pragmatic rather than evil. She doesn’t do anything particularly villainous and her attempt to manage the family’s finances is heartless but makes financial sense. Barry never knew his father, who is killed in the film's opening shot; he spends his life looking for a father figure while being led astray by women, but the film makes it clear that Barry leads himself astray, and the women have to grift and graft just as much as the men in order to survive. The lovely Gay Hamilton has a small role as a temptress who enjoys the company of men’s money, but she is no more of a swindler than Barry Lyndon himself. The only other female character of note is a German woman who gives Barry Lyndon succour. She is played by Diana Korner, who has a passing resemblance to Gay Hamilton that confused me for a moment.
Barry Lyndon was criticised at the time for its great length (the screening I attended kept the intermission, during which I went out to buy a glass of wine, so my recollection of the second part of the film is less reliable than my recollection of the first. On the way home I slipped and fell in the street, but that was because it had been raining, not because I was drunk. It takes more than a glass of wine to get me drunk. It takes several glasses, although obviously it depends on the size of the glass. Also there are degrees of drunkenness.
NB I saw the film at the Curzon Bloomsbury, in a tiny theatre that seemed to have mono sound. The film has a soundtrack of period music adapted for the film; Leonard Rosenman won an Academy Award for conducting and adapting the music (the Best Original Score went to John Williams for Jaws). You recognise Handel’s Sarabande, which was in an advert for Levi’s jeans a few years ago, and I’m sure some of the other music was used in television adverts during the 1970s.
The music, like the cinematography, is gorgeous, but it’s hard for me as a British person in 2016 to listen to it without thinking of the Hamlet adverts) and the sequence with Korner could have been cut entirely without hurting the film. I suppose it demonstrates that Barry can speak a bit of German, but to what end? Barry's sudden grasp of German raises the possibility that the events we see unfold before our eyes are not what they seem. The book is told by Barry himself, and he is an unreliable narrator. He continually boasts about his virtue whilst being a monster to all around him. Michael Hordern's narration has something of this, but I believe that the events in the film are supposed to be real. Barry really does beat a man at fisticuffs and he really does win a fencing competition.
The film's depiction of the death of Captian Crogan / Fagan is illustrative. The film shows Barry deserting the field of battle with the wounded officer, and it is left ambiguous whether his flight is prompted by concern for his friend or terror at the battle, which continues in the background. In the book he is eager to join the fight and leaves the Captain behind. Furthermore Barry's violent bedtime stories to his young son are obviously inventions - and to be fair to him, his description of beheading scores of French soldiers is endearingly silly rather than a genuine attempt to rewrite history - whereas the book pokes fun not so much at Barry's bloodthirstiness as his hypocritical protests that he is a better sort than the common soldier, even while he boasts of stealing from the dead. On the whole the Barry of the book is a lot more violent than the Barry of the film; he kills people.
"I cannot help saying that I made a very close acquaintance with the colonel of the Cravates; for I drove my bayonet into his body, and finished off a poor little ensign, so young, slender, and small, that a blow from my pigtail would have despatched him, I think, in place of the butt of my musket, with which I clubbed him down. I killed, besides, four more officers and men, and in the poor ensign's pocket found a purse of fourteen louis-d'or, and a silver box of sugar-plums; of which the former present was very agreeable to me.
When my kind friend Fagan was shot, a brother captain, and his very good friend, turned to Lieutenant Rawson and said, "Fagan's down; Rawson, there's your company." It was all the epitaph my brave patron got. "I should have left you a hundred guineas, Redmond," were his last words to me, "but for a cursed run of ill luck last night at faro." And he gave me a faint squeeze of the hand; then, as the word was given to advance, I left him.
When we came back to our old ground, which we presently did, he was lying there still; but he was dead. Some of our people had already torn off his epaulets, and, no doubt, had rifled his purse. Such knaves and ruffians do men in war become! It is well for gentlemen to talk of the age of chivalry; but remember the starving brutes whom they lead - men nursed in poverty, entirely ignorant, made to take a pride in deeds of blood - men who can have no amusement but in drunkenness, debauch, and plunder. It is with these shocking instruments that your great warriors and kings have been doing their murderous work in the world."
Rewind feminist implications. Kubrick made films for men that held up a broken mirror to mid-century modernist man. The women of his films were accessories of the men, and I suppose if I was reviewing this film for the AV Club I would give it no stars because of this. Perhaps far in the future, when we have uploaded ourselves to The Cloud, we will be able to judge his work fairly. But is Barry Lyndon any good?
Despite its longueurs it is endlessly watchable on account of the beautiful scenery. Over the years its reputation has grown, although recent attempts to position it as Kubrick’s great masterpiece are unconvincing. Nonetheless it has stuck with me ever since I saw it first, a long time ago, on television. The character of Barry Lyndon is fascinating even though O’Neal’s performance is dreadfully wooden, with a wandering accent that switches from cod-Oirish to mid-Atlantic from scene to scene. For all his reputation for perfection, Stanley Kubrick didn’t seem to care about O’Neal’s accent.
What a film it would have been with Richard Harris or Oliver Reed instead! Or Donald Sutherland. But by 1975 they were slightly too old. Barry Lyndon was filmed at a time when the British motion picture industry had collapsed; the British stars who had emerged in the 1960s had either gone to Hollywood or back to television, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s there were essentially no new British film stars, none of the right age to play Barry Lyndon. He was far too young at the time, but given the course of his life and career it's fascinating to imagine Mel Gibson in the role.
Why is Lyndon fascinating? On the surface he is an opportunistic cad, but when pushed he is capable of bravery. He is genuinely good with his fists and the film demonstrates that when he puts his mind to it he can assume the airs of a gentleman. He loves his mother and his son, and they love him. At the climax of the film he performs an honourable act of fair play - an act that, ironically, leads to his downfall. His behaviour is probably no worse than any other country gentleman of those times. In particular it is never made clear whether Lady Lyndon's marriage to Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon was any less miserable than her marriage to Barry. The book's version of Charles Lyndon suggests that it was, but because the story is narrated by Redmond Barry himself we cannot be sure. The only thing separating him from his peers is that he fails. As the final title card points out, they are all equal now. As time went on they were put back in the box; Europe itself ceased to be the peak of humankind’s achievements, and no-one cares what happened to the men and women of the 1700s any more, all those Countesses and Earls.
For the most part Barry Lyndon is a quietly reserved film, with moments of emotional brutality. It has an unusually bleak ending, although slightly less bleak than the book, in which Lyndon ends up reverting to childhood before dying in prison. The film is narrated by Michael Hordern, familiar to British audiences as the narrator of the 1976 Paddington Bear television series. Hordern has a jovial, fatherly tone but his narration is coldly detached, often subverting our understanding of the film’s events. He makes it clear that Barry will not recover from his final downfall; the film disposes of him with an undignified freeze-frame.
None of the film’s characters can look forward to a happy ending. Lady Lyndon is devastated and will probably spend the rest of her days signing forms in her drawing-room. Lord Bullingdon is left to pick up the pieces of a shattered fortune. I imagine that the Prussians who gave Lyndon a chance to go straight were in hot water after he ran away, and I assume that the Chevalier du Balibari had died or been imprisoned some time before Lyndon is sent into exile. Meanwhile I can’t imagine the marriage of John Quin and Nora Brady working out in the long run. In a happy film they might live to a ripe old age, but this is Barry Lyndon, and I imagine that Quin is killed in battle, or badly wounded and thrown out of the army with a tiny pension, leaving Nora to grow old and fat in a loveless marriage with no-one to help her and no money.
Barry Lyndon is a famously good-looking film. Kubrick had an ace location scout and the means to film everything late in the evening when the sun was coming down; he had either the good fortune or the sheer persistence to pick the few days when it was sunny in England and Ireland. The film is famous for its use of a special lens for the candlelit indoors sequences, but the thing I remember most is the landscapes, shot beautifully with the best graduated neutral density filters that money could buy.
The film also makes use of fog filters, a favourite of 1970s cinematographers, and because of this it has dated a little. The sumptuous look was lifted wholesale by Ridley Scott for The Duellists, and I’m convinced that the New Romantic movement was inspired by the two films, and so as a consequence whenever I think of Barry Lyndon I think of the early 1980s, specifically Not the Nine O'Clock News' "Nice Video, Shame About the Song" and Adam and the Ants' "Stand and Deliver":
The mixture of fog filters and naturalistic lighting is still very distinctive - Barry Lyndon combines the look of a mid-70s Vogue magazine spread with the look of a modern magical realist film such as The Revenant or The New World. It wasn’t entirely shot with natural light, but the interiors have a stark beauty that matches the landscapes. The Prussian sequences are often overcast or lit with a cold blue light; I’m not sure if this was a deliberate attempt to create a theme or simply bad weather and a tight schedule.
One aspect of the cinematography hasn’t aged well. Barry Lyndon was shot at a time when directors had fallen in love with zoom lenses. Kubrick used a mixture of off-the-shelf and custom-modified Angenieux long zooms that have a distinctive look. He often begins a shot with a close-up of a detail, before zooming out to show the characters as small figures in a landscape, overwhelmed by towering clouds. His use of the zoom is never gratuitous, and it conveys the ideas he was trying to get across, but nobody uses zooms any more. A series of technological revolutions throughout the 1970s and 1980s changed the look of cinema forever; notably the Steadicam, which allowed directors to put the camera right into the actors’ faces and have fluid dolly shots even when there wasn’t space for a camera track. The static shots, slow pans, and deliberate zooms of Barry Lyndon lock it cinematically into the 1970s. There are occasional glimpses of the modern age, including two really good tracking shots, but on the whole Barry Lyndon is very much of its era. But that’s not so bad. The 1970s was a fascinating decade for films and Barry Lyndon is in good company.
How does it fit into Stanley Kubrick’s career? It is the point just beyond the point when he ran out of youthful vigour and became an imitation of himself. It reuses many of the tricks he had deployed in earlier films. The fight sequences are shot with hand-held cameras, there are long holds on people’s faces as realisation dawns on them, the interiors are shot with the camera perfectly levelled and centered, actors are often put in the middle of the frame etc. As with the zoom shots they all make sense in context, but Barry Lyndon is the point in Kubrick’s filmography at which the tricks become obvious. The point at which the Kubrickisms start to overwhelm the film. Did you like that bit with the brackets earlier on, by the way? That was deliberate.
Kubrick’s unique style worked in the context of The Shining but was disastrously misplaced in Full Metal Jacket, where his geometric compositions were either inappropriate or facile, and ultimately Barry Lyndon has a whiff of stagnation about it. The mixture of historical distance, a detached narrator and the clinical cinematography almost come across as a parody of Kubrick’s work. The much-ballyhooed special lenses were created for sound technical reasons, but if Kubrick really wanted to challenge himself why not do something different? Early in his career Kubrick was willing to experiment with new genres, but even though Barry Lyndon is on the surface an abrupt shift from his last few films, it is so quintessentially Kubrick that it feels like a retread. Imagine if he had really tried to push himself, and had filmed a light comedy, or a genuinely heartfelt romance; or something other than the detached, good-looking tragedy of a man being crushed by fate.
It’s a tribute to Kubrick’s guts that he managed to turn a series of novels written by other people into unique expressions of his own worldview, but by 1975 Kubrick had ossified to the point where he was simply churning out the same basic film every few years. Lyndon was Kubrick’s return to the game after spending several years trying to get a biography of Napoleon off the ground, but audiences had moved on from 1971 and A Clockwork Orange; Lyndon was released in the same year as Jaws, and from that point onward Hollywood changed. The Shining was a shrewd move into the horror genre and firmly reestablished Kubrick as a bankable moneymaker, but he was out of his element in the 1980s and wisely decided to move into semi-retirement.
On at least a technical level James Cameron and Michael Bay have something of Stanley Kubrick about them - they are perfectionists who know precisely which lenses to use - but they are prepared to subsume themselves into the material, whereas Kubrick’s overwhelmingly pessimistic, philosophical view of fate and destiny would not have been a good fit with the tenor of Hollywood in the 1980s. By the 1990s he appeared to have been worn down by Hollywood, spending his time tinkering incessantly. Barry Lyndon is thus a portrait of a bygone age, and it works on several levels.
"I was no longer the man I was at twenty, when I should have charged the ruffians sword in hand, and have sent at least one of them to his account. I was broken in spirit; regularly caught in the toils: utterly baffled and beaten by that woman. Was she relenting at the door, when she paused and begged me turn back? Had she not a lingering love for me still? Her conduct showed it, as I came to reflect on it. It was my only chance now left in the world, so I put down my sword upon the lawyer's desk."