Kubrick: Barry Lyndon
December 27, 2017 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Barry reacts to Quin's announcement by throwing a glass in his face. Again, when love is on the line, and social mobility at stake, Barry's only recourse is violence. Another way to put it is, Quin represents one level of violence (that of state against state) while Barry represents a highly personal level of violence, one that Quin doesn’t seem to be prepared for. He recoils as though poleaxed. Startled and horrified by Barry's outburst, he, again, threatens Nora's family and demands that Barry be punished. "I'm an Englishman and a man of property!" he splutters, thinking his social status should protect him from this kind of violence. Later, we'll see how social status, in this narrative, is nothing but a scam, created specifically to protect the wealthy from the poor.

Todd Alcott (previously: 1 2 3) looks at Barry Lyndon (previously: 1 2), in nine parts:

  1. Kubrick lets us know, before the movie even starts, that his subject here is social mobility
  2. Act II takes him out of the fire, puts him, briefly, into a frying pan, and then back into a bigger fire, then puts him, briefly, into a comfy seat next to the fire, before throwing him headlong back into an even bigger fire
  3. There could have been great tension, suspense and humor seeing Barry steal the officer's horse, to say nothing of his uniform, and getting away through the woods. Kubrick, ever chilly, dispenses with the action beat
  4. The point being, obviously, that Barry still seeks social mobility but has learned enough by now that advancement, for him anyway, depends not on love but love's counterfeit
  5. Balibari has succeeded in doing what Barry has wanted all his life: he's got fabulous wealth, style for miles, taste and charm, and is a complete and utter fraud
  6. Indeed, Lady Lyndon's "true feelings" often go unexplored as the narrative continues, especially in regards to Barry's open social climbing. Is she a porcelain doll in a glass case, unaware of Barry's predations, or is she so love-starved that she knows about his schemes on her and doesn't care?
  7. We come back from intermission to find a title card announcing that the remainder of Barry Lyndon will be about Barry's fall from good fortune
  8. So all our themes meet again. Barry's deceitful, violence-drenched journey up the social ladder has brought him, the long way around, back to love. Not the love of a schoolboy or the love of a passing soldier or the love of men at arms, but parental love
  9. It's interesting, and so very cold, that a narrative this full of passion (such as it is) ends with a scene of Lady Lyndon back in her place as the payer of bills. Her family now is Graham, Runt, and Bullingdon, all of whom hover around her, not in the accounting room now but in the middle of a grand, empty ballroom, and her life is just about signing checks
posted by smcg (39 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't ask Santa for a good, long, in-depth read about Barry Lyndon, but I got one anyway! This will be great for quilts-and-cocoa time.

(Hope they talk about the soundtrack. THE SOUNDTRACK!)

posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:00 AM on December 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

I've never seen this movie. I've wanted to, after reading the book and reading about Kubrick's techniques for it, but I also know that Kubrick is bad at women. And Barry Lyndon is a horror story for women. The woman whose trouble inspired it lived a nightmare with Andrew Robinson Stoney, who "imprisoned the countess in her home, squandered her wealth, raped the maids and fathered many illegitimate children." So I don't know the degree to which this movie might make me want to throw things, and whether I should watch it anyway.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:37 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Such an unlikable film with an unlikable title character played by an unlikable actor.

But a pretty film to look at.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 11:03 AM on December 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm going to enjoy reading this tonight. This might be a controversial opinion, but I prefer Barry Lyndon to 2001, Clockwork Orange, or Full Metal Jacket.
posted by riruro at 11:10 AM on December 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

A lot of great material on Barry Lyndon from the wonderful Cinephilia & Beyond site: All hail Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon,’ a masterclass in bringing a unique filmmaker’s vision to life.
posted by sapagan at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd still put 2001 at #1 but I'm with you that Barry Lyndon is better than Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket. I really want to see it on a big screen someday, preferably with a 35mm print.
posted by octothorpe at 11:34 AM on December 27, 2017

This might be a controversial opinion, but I prefer Barry Lyndon to 2001, Clockwork Orange, or Full Metal Jacket.

I have some trouble ranking Kubrick at the top because it changes as moods go, but Barry Lyndon is easily my favourite movie as far as his cinematography goes.
posted by lmfsilva at 11:47 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Countess Elena: I can confirm your fears. The movie so thoroughly misses the point of the novel I suspect Kubrick skimmed it at best.
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:48 AM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

The movie so thoroughly misses the point of the novel...

Kubrick was well known for ignoring the point of many of the novels he filmed, and doing what he wanted with the material. ("Cinema’s Friend; Author’s Nightmare.")

But a pretty film to look at.

It won Academy Awards for art design, costume design, and cinematography, and the filming done with lenses specially developed for the production is remarkable.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:10 PM on December 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

So I don't know the degree to which this movie might make me want to throw things, and whether I should watch it anyway.

I've seen Barry Lyndon three times on a big screen. If you ever get a chance for that, I'd absolutely recommend taking it.
posted by philip-random at 12:32 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Barry Lyndon: it was clear that Stanley thought it was vital.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 12:38 PM on December 27, 2017

I love this movie, it’s the bitichest, meanest thing Kubrick ever did and Ryan O’Neal looks like he is exactly as dumb as his character is supposed to be.
posted by The Whelk at 1:07 PM on December 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

Love the film, but I still have no idea why O'Neal got the part. If only Michael Caine had been ten years younger.
posted by Beholder at 1:11 PM on December 27, 2017

sapagan, that interview is great! Thanks!
posted by sutt at 1:12 PM on December 27, 2017

Beholder: from the interview sapagan linked to:

"How did you decide on Ryan O’Neal?
He was the best actor for the part. He looked right and I was confident that he possessed much greater acting ability than he had been allowed to show in many of the films he had previously done. In retrospect, I think my confidence in him was fully justified by his performance, and I still can’t think of anyone who would have been better for the part. The personal qualities of an actor, as they relate to the role, are almost as important as his ability, and other actors, say, like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman, just to name a few who are great actors, would nevertheless have been wrong to play Barry Lyndon. I liked Ryan and we got along very well together. In this regard the only difficulties I have ever had with actors happened when their acting technique wasn’t good enough to do something you asked of them. One way an actor deals with this difficulty is to invent a lot of excuses that have nothing to do with the real problem. This was very well represented in Truuffaut’s Day For Night when Valentina Cortese, the star of the film within the film, hadn’t bothered to learn her lines and claimed her dialogue fluffs were due to the confusion created by the script girl playing a bit part in the scene."
posted by sutt at 1:13 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Barry Lyndon is my favorite Kubrick movie and Kubrick is my favorite director. However everything everybody had said up-thread is totally true; the movie is a horror story for women; the title character is unlikable; the tenor of the movie is mean; O’Neal is a poor actor in it. Having said all that, it is easily the most beautifully-shot movie I've ever seen (the only thing I can think of that is even in the same class may be Malick's Days of Heaven).
posted by codex99 at 2:19 PM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm conflicted about the Ryan casting in this film. Thackery makes it pretty clear that Barry is an asshole, but that he gets as far he does because he also has the swagger & charisma of a charming rogue. Ryan just feels too stiff and stoneface to really deliver the charm. Maybe that's just some Kubrickian irony at work here? My brother the amateur film critic says that Jack Nicholson would have been a better rogue in this role, and I tend to agree. Not that I hate on for Ryan, he was swell in the original version of 'The Driver' and the delightful 'Tough Guys Don't Dance'.
posted by ovvl at 3:32 PM on December 27, 2017

Kubrick's version left out one of the most interesting scenes in the novel, the one where the faux-gentry card sharps get snookered at faro playing against math students and their soldier buddies at a roadhouse. I kinda see why Kubrick left it out, but it's a fun read in the original version.
posted by ovvl at 3:37 PM on December 27, 2017

O'Neill's portrayal carries an aura of naïveté that is essential to the class critique, and that would not have been possible with Nicholson.
posted by No Robots at 4:08 PM on December 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

O'Neill's portrayal carries an aura of naïveté that is essential to the class critique, and that would not have been possible with Nicholson.

Näh! The essënce is nöt naïveté, tis chärïsmä what gräsps the däy!
posted by ovvl at 8:04 PM on December 27, 2017

Ryan O’Neal probably was scorned in Hollywood initially because he came to fame in a TV soap opera (Peyton Place). By the time he was cast in Barry Lyndon, though, he’d been voted the second most popular movie star in the country (behind Clint Eastwood) thanks of the success of Love Story (for which he got a Best Actor nomination), Paper Moon (co-starring with his 10-year-old daughter Tatum, who did win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), and What’s Up, Doc?, where I think he's excellent as a dopey, naive charmer. Both his mother and father, too – like the original Barry Lyndon – had Irish ancestors. Whether he's miscast or not, O’Neal did win an award for the film – the Harvard Lampoon nod as the Worst Actor of 1975.

p.s. I agree with No Robots that Nicholson wouldn't have been a very good Barry – although Kubrick of course did get around to using him five years later in The Shining. At the same time Barry Lyndon was being filmed, Jack – wisely – was shooting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which he won an Academy Award, not one from the Harvard Lampoon.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:41 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

In a bad script, a narrator tells us what we’re seeing. In Barry Lyndon, the narrator tells us what we’re not seeing. Part of the vocabulary of Barry Lyndon is that the acting is, generally speaking, tamped way down, the actors frozen in place, held in place, we might say, by forces beyond their control. The characters do what they do because it is their destiny. The narrator, in a gently mocking tone, looks at the characters as one might look at one’s wayward child. They’re foolish and vain, the narrator says, but he loves them, because they’re so human. The fact that the narrator is often way ahead of the story, and tells us so, helps give the impression that the characters in Barry Lyndon, for all their hopes and desires, never really have any choice in the matters of their lives. The narrator is a kind of God, moving the characters around like chess pieces, watching the game play out the only way it can.

For another take, see this essay by Mark Crispin Miller, which argues that the narrator is not so aloof and infallible as he would like us to think. The narrator's agenda is to present the cautionary tale of a greedy rogue who got above his station and received his just deserts; what the camera actually shows doesn't always agree with this, or at least leaves open other interpretations. I don't know if I agree with Miller about the degree to which the narrator is unreliable, but I do think part of the film's lasting power is an ironic disconnect between the cynical, simplifying certainty of the narration and the richness and emotional ambiguity of Kubrick's images.
posted by Iridic at 9:52 PM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thackery makes it pretty clear that Barry is an asshole, but that he gets as far he does because he also has the swagger & charisma of a charming rogue. Ryan just feels too stiff and stoneface to really deliver the charm.

I remember what a disappointment this was to me when the film first came out. The costumes, settings, cinematography and music were all stunning, but O'Neal as Barry Lyndon was such a charmless lumpish creature that it spoilt the story for me. I just have to imagine what a young Sean Bean could have made of the part if Kubrick had filmed it ten years later to see what a difference a bit of charm could make. I know many people feel the lack of charm was a deliberate choice of Kubrick's to emphasize the hollowness of the whole social setup, but for me it made it impossible to believe that Barry could ever have got as far as he did.
posted by Azara at 1:01 AM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Charm though generally arises through some sort of interpersonal awareness or complexity, both of which Barry lacks. His attainment of significance is inextricably linked to surface effect, as is the movie. His fortune is tied to his looks and willingness to "cheat", where his alleged betters are comfortable in their surroundings, but no more charming or attractive for it. That Lady Lyndon is played by Marisa Berenson, a rough equivalent for O'Neal in terms of surface beauty and, in character terms, a general inexpressiveness beyond that surface, is telling in this regard, as is the surrounding cast in look and character. Barry stands out in contrast, not in exceptionalism in his own right.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:53 AM on December 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am enjoying this discussion and all of its angles.

in a bad script, a narrator tells us what we’re seeing. In Barry Lyndon, the narrator tells us what we’re not seeing. Part of the vocabulary of Barry Lyndon is that the acting is, generally speaking, tamped way down, the actors frozen in place, held in place, we might say, by forces beyond their control. The characters do what they do because it is their destiny.

reminds me of a stoned filmmakers discussion from many years ago. We're all trying to figure out the Rules of Narrative, but someone keeps throwing Kubrick into the mix, Kubrick's movies do not conform to any of these rules, they move from plot-driven to character-driven to ... well, who knows really? The key point, it's all in service of a unique cinema -- more than just a dramatic narrative experience, too incise to just shrug off as "experimental". He's an artist and whatever he's doing, he's doing it on purpose*.

In the specific case of Ryan O'Neal and Barry Lyndon in particular, I'd argue that Kubrick specifically wanted anything but the charming rogue (TM) that Hollywood's historical adventure wing had long embraced to the point of cliche. Which meant that whoever was going to get the part -- it was going to be an "against type" choice. Because above all, the movie is revisionist. It wants us exiting the theater (or wherever) with our assumptions about history (and thus reality itself) confused.

* Obviously, Kubrick's not the only filmmaker of his era who messed with the conventions, but he is perhaps the only one who who repeatedly managed it with gobs of Hollywood money.
posted by philip-random at 9:21 AM on December 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

What a pleasure it is to re-experience this film through Mr. Alcott's observant prescis. He certainly opened my eyes to some things that I hadn't noticed, and reaffirmed many of my own feelings about the film. I do believe that he and most other people writing about this film fail to acknowledge the deep humanity that goes alongside its well-recognized cynicism and brutality. I find nearly all the characters deeply sympathetic, with the exception of Reverend Runt and the two highwaymen at the beginning. As the narrator says in his final line, we all wind up at the same level and in the same place -- the grave. There is great decency in the wistful note of that nihilistic assertion.
posted by Modest House at 10:28 AM on December 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I want to thank everybody for their contributions to this thread, especially OG viewers of the film. I first watched this maybe twenty years ago, after realizing I was prone to occasionally write seriously about film. I had limited resources with which to grasp or contextualize the apparent disappointment and dissmissal with which the film was largely met on release. It's not my favorite Kubrick - that has to be 2001 - but I found it much superior to Full Metal Jacket and more to my taste than The Shining (which I do recognize as a more accessible film).

Anyway, it's one of my favorite films, and the reasons I favor it tend to be the reasons it failed commercially, and I have always found it challenging to understand why these characteristics undermined the film's commercial performance.

I've been known to do a couch double feature, running this film and Ridley Scott's The Duellists back to back. My wife and my dinner guests have always appreciated the restful ease that it appears to accommodate to them; less so my excited gibbering about this technical accomplishment or that compositional derivation.

Allow me to offer you this narrow glass of rustic brandy in salutation.
posted by mwhybark at 4:24 PM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Out of curiosity, have you ever been tempted to throw The Draughtsman's Contract in there, too? Although set a bit earlier, I think (1695) I have a vague notion Greenaway was trying some kind of critique of Barry Lyndon the film, though for the life of me I can't remember what. I used to be obsessed with The Draughtsman's Contract, but it was thirty-five years ago.
posted by Grangousier at 4:45 PM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Me personally? No, I can't say I've ever thought to toss Greenaway in there. Good lord, I can't remember the last time I thought about his stuff. I definitely remember how impressive and weird and transgressive it seemed at the time. Now, for some reason, I associate his stuff with Kurosawa, maybe because of the Shakespeare sources.
posted by mwhybark at 5:02 PM on December 28, 2017

The duel scene in the barn at the end is my favourite scene in cinema. Everything about it is perfect. The lighting. The way every cut falls just behind the beat of the score. The way Bullingdon pukes.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 5:10 PM on December 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not Greenaway in general, but Draughtsman in particular. I've always seen it as part of a similar genre (on a much, much smaller budget).
posted by Grangousier at 5:12 PM on December 28, 2017

The duel scene in the barn at the end is my favourite scene in cinema. Everything about it is perfect.

The CinemaTyler YouTube channel posted a 7-minute 'breakdown' of that scene in July, along with a more detailed, 14-minute video about the film’s cinematography.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:29 PM on December 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Personally, I think Barry Lyndon just barely ranks below Dr. Strangelove in terms of comedy. I can't stop laughing at every scene where Barry acts like a complete and utter tool -- every scene with Barry.

And then, he does one good thing, and gets kicked in the balls, and it's all pretty fucking sad, actually.

posted by Saxon Kane at 11:05 PM on December 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Love the film, but I still have no idea why O'Neal got the part.

I have a rather underdeveloped hypothesis that Kubrick liked to take young (or young-ish, or not extremely experienced. relatively speaking) male actors and put them through a trial as actors to mirror the trial the characters go through: Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange, Ryan O'Neil in Barry Lyndon, Nicholson although not as young/in-experienced as the last two, in The Shining, Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket, and finally Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut -- hell, Keir Dullea in 2001 too. It's just an interesting trend I've observed.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:11 PM on December 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

To generalize, Kubrick's main themes are regarding systems of power and control, where the breakdown or loss of control is often at the heart of the story. Kubrick as a director is suited to this by dint of his being one of the most controlling of directors himself. He seeks to implicate the audience by his method of filmmaking, where the control of the camera and narrative fits that of the systematic forces of control the characters face.

In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick establishes a distance between Barry and the audience through the use of a narrator, establishing scenes "like paintings" from a remove for their visual appeal, and in having O'Neal/Barry himself shown coldly, without undue emotional attachment.

There is a similarity in this to director's like Ozu, who's focus is on order and who is a director exhibiting the most painstaking attention to order within his films. Like Kubrick, Ozu too keeps his characters at a slight remove for the audience to see their surrounding circumstance better, before bringing attention to the cost of social order the characters felt necessary to follow. One could say similar things about other directors who seemingly devote outsized importance to composition and organizational elements. Wes Anderson, for just one more current example, takes that same concept in a different direction than Ozu and Kubrick, but to somewhat similar ends regarding the balance between arrangement and disarray. That, in itself, of course, isn't the full measure of success or value to their films, comparatively or otherwise, but it informs how the viewer engages with their works and how their movies treat their themes.

With Kubrick, the question of "liking" characters is a fraught one since the more personal characters are often the more flawed, with Alex from A Clockwork Orange being the most notable example (a movie I'm not entirely pleased with I might add), and those of Dr Strangelove, Lolita, and Jack from the Shining being some other examples of characters given more effusive personalities to draw the viewer into their perspectives all the more. The goal seeming to be in aligning the viewer with the more problematic elements, to challenge their desire for neat resolution, and/or attachment to the protagonist as hero among other things. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex as hero and the resolution as victory is almost inherently morally troubling. That Kubrick pushes this perspective on to his audience aligns their interests with Alex's to complicate the usual moral outlook one might hold. It places the desire for a satisfying narrative in competition with one's moral outlook and allows the narrative to win.

With Barry Lyndon, the construction is almost reversed. The audience is set at a remove from Barry, left to judge his actions from the outside. There is minimal attempt to create added sympathy or empathy for Barry other than the film being about him. His situation and actions are seen coldly, he is often the butt of humor and blind to the circumstances and attitudes of which the audience is made aware. We don't then "feel" his actions as he would in the moment, but see then in their particular place within a larger narrative frame. Our judgement of Barry or response to his actions is fed by seeing more than he can, allowing us a sense of superiority to the character for not being taken in. This attitude creates a constraint on how we conceptualize Barry's actions, making his attempt to force change in his station seem almost doomed from the start. That aligns the audience with the elite of Barry's society in a way which may not make us "like them" but does make us like them in a sense, seeing Barry in a similar way and judging his actions by similar "rules".

Barry Lyndon isn't a film one immediately warms to if there isn't some history or knowledge of its methods before watching, most people seem to dislike it for much the same reasons on their initial viewing, finding it and Barry visually impressive but unlikeable, which does go towards answering why that might be given how that attitude informs the narrative. Yet on a perhaps more "meta" level that demand for being pleased, for liking, can make the audience like Barry blind to what is for desire of what one wants instead, something that is also a reoccurring theme in Kubrick's work.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:43 AM on December 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

I like to think that Barry Lyndon is a layered onion of greed and cynicism around the real heart of the movie: a scene shot with the light of a single candle, the night that farmer Lischen and deserter Barry spend together in the middle of a seven year long war.
posted by haemanu at 9:03 AM on December 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

I’ve been turning this over in my head for a few days now, and I cannot figure out the narration in Barry Lyndon. For me, the Mark Crispin Miller essay linked above raises good points about how the narrator cannot be trusted. He offers only glib excuses for people’s motivations in among the summaries of off-screen action. But in the Kubrick interview about Barry Lyndon at the Cinephilia & Beyond site which was also linked above, makes it sound like Kubrick only used a voice-over so he wouldn’t have to dramatise any boring bits.

I love me a long static shot, but you can’t avoid filming stealing a horse or getting arrested because they’re boring when you’ve got 20+ minutes of people sitting like Gainsborough paintings. So Kubrick must be being evasive here. And fair enough, he was never keen on explaining the meaning of a film.

But then why have the narration at all? Let people assign meaning the way they did for Eyes Wide Shut or The Shining, by looking at the visuals instead of what people say. Why have an unreliable narrator tell a conventional but wrong story when people can come up with that for themselves?

Is it perhaps to do with the way Thackeray has Barry as a braggart, another unreliable narrator? Kubrick does mention that as part of the change from 1st-person to 3-Dr person. But he never really cared about authentically translating a novel so why do it for this story?

It’s probably not a huge conundrum- I often think people beanplate Kubrick too much, maybe this is just my time to ponder the plate. But it keeps popping up in my mind.
posted by harriet vane at 12:10 AM on January 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

I assume O'Neal 's time as a boxer was a reason Kubrick cast him. Kubrick, as many of you know, was a boxing fan and boxers were the subjects of a lot of his photography and early film career. So Kubrick must have appreciated what O'Neal could bring to the role with that background.

Other actors would been more skilled at performing in a period piece, but not many would have the physicality O'Neal did. Barry's brutish masculinity needs to contrast with the wispy and effeminate gentry. At the very least, actors tend to be shorter than average men, but O'Neal is usually the tallest person in the scene.
posted by riruro at 6:48 PM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Other actors would been more skilled at performing in a period piece

Considering Barry Lyndon is a grifter and a social climber, the continued questioning over O'Neal proves that he was a pretty good casting choice.
posted by lmfsilva at 2:53 PM on January 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

« Older I am the queen of the 🐈 💩 📦   |   Procedural Planet Generator Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments