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Cinemalphabet: B is for Barry Lyndon

September 27, 2010


Barry Lyndon is the Kubrick film audiences and critics deserved – measured, sterile and utterly precise after the mess they made of his polarizing 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange. Lost in the endless and ongoing debates over cultural violence, misogyny and dystopian visions of human interaction were conversations regarding the artistry of the film. As a Kubrick scholar and a feminist, at times I find the discourse surrounding the problematic aspects of the film and source material a bit exhausting. It’s a film about bad people who do bad things and do so with seeming impunity. I’m not exactly sure how you depict that without showing some of those bad things. And seriously, do we have to preface every conversation with these criticisms? This is not to suggest I haven’t gotten my own licks in as it relates to A Clockwork Orange. Certainly feminist whiners who can get past the erasure of race on Mad Men, the ableism and race fail on Glee can cut Kube and his A Clockwork Orange a little slack. Or maybe they can’t. Oh yeah, I called them a bunch of whiners.

Ruthless Reviews had this take on Barry Lyndon:

From 2001 on, Kubrick maintained a distinct, unmistakable style (Steadicam, mannered acting, deliberate pacing), but it has never been on more remarkable display than in this largely forgotten masterpiece. And yes, I will use that term because the film is so tightly controlled, so insistent on its vision that, despite the bloodless characters and mechanistic interactions, everything is exactly as Kubrick desired. One might not find much by way of entertainment value, at least in the modern conception of the term, but it is impossible to describe as a failed effort a film that unfolds with nothing extraneous to the overall aim. Kubrick devotees, or at least who think of themselves as such, are usually resistant to this film, and just as many have not even heard of it. But it would be unjust to underestimate Barry Lyndon; dismissing it as a stale period piece or high-minded attempt to redefine the costume epic.

Chow chow translated: This is one long, carefully crafted, painstaking, boring ass movie and you bastards deserve it, the whole ungrateful lot of you. You deserve to spend three hours of your life – you won’t get back on your deathbed – watching Ryan O’Neal bringing his C- game to the court in a dizzying array of powdered wigs and pants whose crotches are certain to carry the stench of corn chips.

Having said all that, Barry Lyndon is a film about ritual, about the metronome of life’s obligatory events: birth, the stuff in the middle and death. If it sounds incredibly simplistic; it is. The film is based on the novel by The Luck of Barry Lyndon by the dude who wrote Vanity Fair – another novel of social mountaineering. I’ll be honest, I don’t like either novel all that much, which is kind strange because I do enjoy picaresque novels. Nothing more satisfying that seeing a lovable scamp beat – or at least match – society at its own game. However, dismissing the social mountaineer Redmond Barry as merely a cheeky bastard is to erase the interesting exploration – albeit not particularly engaging to me as executed – of daddy issues and abandonment. Set during the chaos filled years prior to the French Revolution, Barry Lyndon, is neatly halved via the use of title cards:

I. By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon.
II. Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon.

it’s an interesting choice and necessary for a film so in love with its precision, pageantry and somewhat indifferent to its characters or their lives. That said, there’s a long exposition and lots of beautiful nothingness to tell the audience that – in short – Irish dude of non noble birth marries the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) after her husband dies; tragedy ensues. I was not a Kubrick devotee who resisted Barry Lyndon. In fact I actively sought it out, which at the time involved three attempts at procuring the film – complete with driving the sketchy back roads of Vermont to a ramshackle building boasting all kinds of fabulous hard-to-find films.

When I first viewed Barry Lyndon, other than its length, I was surprised it wasn’t more well regarded. Never has a film been so precious in its execution of its director’s vision, which itself was way too fucking precious – expensive special lens to faithfully recreate the lighting of the 18th century! Filmed with each shot resembling paintings of the day (in aesthetics) with those super special lens, I have to say, this is probably the most specular and largely the most memorable aspect of the film. The acting, however, is not quite as radiant. Ryan O’Neal stars as Redmond Barry and he’s at his most wooden here than I’ve ever recalled seeing him. He’s about as engaging here as Matthew Modine is in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2010 1:42 pm

    and don’t forget, you can watch Barry Lyndon RIGHT NOW on Netflix Instant!!

    This is one long, carefully crafted, painstaking, boring ass movie and you bastards deserve it, the whole ungrateful lot of you.

    love love love.

  2. September 27, 2010 1:52 pm

    Yes! It’s actually worth a look, because it is so gorgeous. It’s like a gorgeous person who doesn’t have an interesting personality to match. It’s wonderful.

  3. September 28, 2010 2:14 am

    True confession time: of all the Kubrick feature films since 1960, the only one I haven’t seen is…

  4. Kia permalink
    September 28, 2010 9:26 am

    I’m not a huge fan of Kubrick but I married into a laser disc collection of most of his films and Barry Lyndon won me over. There are very few period pieces I can resist, (I sat through Keira Knightley in The Duchess) but I really feel like there is a magic there despite the admittedly poor acting.

    Pop culture tidbit, Farrah & Ryan’s son is named Redmond.

  5. IrishUp permalink
    September 28, 2010 12:13 pm

    @NYCP – I’m in that club, too.

    Snarky, that “Chow chow translated” paragraph killed me! I’m not sure if it makes me want to see “Barry Lyndon” more or less, but I outsnorted my Pepsi a little. No worries, choking and keyboard messes were both averted.

    I really appreciate that your focus here was on how well Kubrick executed his movie. It’s an angle on BL I haven’t run across before.

  6. September 28, 2010 2:41 pm

    @Kia – I’m not into period dramas, but I really dig on BL and I’m mad jealous of your laser disc collection! The only Kube I had on LD was Full Metal Jacket and it laser rotted like a mofo! Also did not know about the Redmond angle!!!

    @Irish up – haha. Yay. I actually laughed after I wrote it, which is weird b/c I don’t often do that. It’s the “corn chip scent” thing right? Also, I love reading the phrase, “the whole lot of you” but I haven’t had many occasions to use it. It always makes me giggle.

    @Penpusher – I’m trying to imagine what you’d think of the film. You tend to be a lot more pragmatic about cinema than I am.

  7. September 29, 2010 8:36 am

    I’ve never seen this film. For a long time I didn’t even realize it was Kubrick, I thought it was one of those cheesy swashbucklers they showed on Skinemax, the kind that starred Oliver Reed but never had him in the nude scenes. Now I’m intrigued.

  8. IrishUp permalink
    September 29, 2010 12:29 pm

    Snarky, the opening line was definitely the initial tremor and corn-chip crotches brought the eruption, but Ryan O’Neal’s C game is totes bringing the aftershocks.

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