The slow motion duel from Barry Lyndon
I’ve been meaning to make a blog on Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable film adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1975). I was so charmed by it when I watched it last year that I made a huge album of stills from the movie and put it in an album on Eighteenth Century Worlds. This week on Trollope19CStudies @ Yahoo we somehow began to discuss it, and I put a little of my original thoughts on the list and people liked it, so I put them here too.
The curious power of this film lies in its insistence on the importance of the slow-moving pictures:
The men gambling
It’s a highly original landmark film for its aesthetics. It’s beautiful. There are continual frames of scenes that are picturesque and evocation of the 18tn century as it’s often imagined in high art. The allure of this includes the salacious and lurid and in context the ironic narrative undercuts and works well with them.
The crowd gambling
Kubrick has the insight and daring to make a central part of his film his instinct that to see this earlier world set up as a neoclassic symmetrical dream vision and the visual pleasure of this is a very real part of the art of such films.
Marisa Berenson looks like a Gainsborough portrait and her hats
make my mouth water: this is a throw back to the Gainsborough studio costume drama films of the 40s, so Kubrick took what he could of the older modes of costume drama too.
The way to view is is to savour it in slow motion — as it is filmed. slow motion and that’s saying something since it moves so slowly.
Of course a film must have thematic meaning and this one has a hard one appropriate to Thackeray’s book. The ending said it all: a devastating bitter close whose final ethical point is close to Thackeray’s (indictment of a corrupt society, the product of human nature generally or its worst aspects for power, its coldness and egoistic appetite for where else can it come from?), though the means and methods are utterly disparate.
Thackeray’s novel (which I looked and dipped into after watching the film) has a narrator like that of Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wilde: like Fielding’s hard satire, Thackeray’s Lyndon is a crude amoral presence and would be a dangerous sociopath if we read the book realistically. We don’t. We know it’s satire. By contrast, Kubrick’s Barry is a noble young man, with a good heart and many illusions about honor and love, just about all of which are utterly out of kilter which the society which professes them (so he’s more like Fielding’s Tom Jones). The movie is not a satire on upward mobility in the Victorian era) but rather an elegy for the destruction of the low-born hero and a poignant evocation of a beautiful world, the ancien regime which paradoxically arose on the miseries and backs of the many. A comment on the 19th century here too. The continual bad things everyone is doing to everyone else amid the domesticity of the later part of the film, how so many end up crippled.
So the underlying meaning is alive; but not brought out by the acting which we could scarcely appreciate as long shots were preferred and iconic and archetypal moments. The best and most memorable moments have little to do with the original story or plot-design or even moral. It moves so slowly, and Kubrick recreates idyllic art of the 18th century — not the real one, and not even the typical, but of a subgenre of picture that after this film many of these costume dramas picked up.
This picnic was recently repeated in the BBC (later 1990s) mini-series, Aristocrats (based on Stella Tillyard’s book, film by David Caffrey and Harriet O’Carroll; it’s a domestic variant, appropriate for the age of sensibility we might say:
Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon are set in the earlier part of the century.
Sumptuous romance had been the key in the 1930s and 40s but no attempt at surface realisms (like old fashioned light), no attention to surface historical accuracies. Kubrick was apparently the first to do this consistently, even manically. Conversation pieces and genre scenes abound:
The musical Lyndon family
Kubrick’s scenes sometimes are shot for more than 90 seconds. It’s as if he asked himself how much strangeness will the audience tolerate? and dared them to complain 🙂 We love to watch the gambling — that holds us. The second duel between the step-son and Lydnon is a masterpiece of nerve, especially when Barry’s nobility boomerangs back on him and he loses his lower leg and all his money.
The excess of the costume and scenes exceeds all else. Really this show that Brideshead Revisited is simply a repeat, a televisual bringing to mini-series what Kubrick did several years before in the moviehouse.
I read about Kubrick’s career too. While he is famous for a couple I couldn’t stand (the pornographic Lolita, and another frighteningly lurid one whose title I mercifully have blocked out), he also made Dr Strangelove. He is one of these directors who knows how to present himself as sole auteur — as in this film. But you have to look for in some cases another person has written the script or produced and it’s someone who does does the cinematography even if directed by Kubrick.
The next night I watched Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones to compare. While the earlier film is still charming, amusing, and yes offers a variety of filmic techniques which succeed in conveying the tone and attitudes of the book towards the characters, somehow it is also more dated than Barry Lyndon.
I think for me it was partly the movie’s content or thematizing of Fielding’s novel: Richardson told the same joke over and over: see how sweet, good, innocent, chivalrous, generous is Tom even though he is in bed with this and that and the other women. It’s that all these women want him so; they are the aggressor again and again. Then he is extricated by highjinks and we are to laugh again as he escapes — until near the end he is almost hung. I tired of it, over and over. Endless exposure of women’s breasts was part of the treat. Not much for Susannah York to do but look loving and accepting, and the sexy women to slither and slide and look CHFM.
Tom and Molly
Sophia and her Aunt Western
That’s what is the film’s repeating incident. I don’t find this all that amusing (at least on the third time and yet more of this to come) nor am I inclined to revel in this sort of “innocence” in the first place.
Like Kubrick, Richardson used a narrator throughout (defying what I gather still is the wisdom of film people and their scorn against non-cinematic techniques like spoken words). This provided the soft comforting ironies. Instead of a slow pace, we had speed, and the stylization kept us at a distance too.
Like Kubrick too, a genuine attempt is made to recreate something of the 18th century world: here it’s rough and ready, rural. The actor doing Mr Weston was superb, as also Partridge.
Finney as Tom setting out in the world, just before he’s diverted into the hunt
The famous long hunt is well done and its coda in a sweet chivalric scene punctuates and turns it into something conventional. Indeed as the man who gave a paper on the music of the film at the ASECS argued, it quickly repeatedly became a conventional complacent film.
Paradoxically because of its aesthetics Barry Lyndon is the graver film and Tom Jones froth in comparison. I don’t say I didn’t enjoy it in a way, but it was very mild enjoyment. A landmark film because it refuses to invite us to be snobs and uses costume drama differently for farcical comedy. It gives us something of Fielding’s quality but (as is not uncommon) leaves us the bite and what is hard about the book.
It’s my view that only is fidelity not a useful criteria, it’s impossible. What is important is to look into and at the movie as a work of art in its own right (as we do an opera many of which are adaptations from stories and novels), with many precursor texts and allusions, only one of which (if major) is its literary
source text. A movie (or opera) is not a window through which we see another text though it may interpret it. One looks at the major source to compare and understand and then appreciate the art and meaning of the new text or film (or opera)