29 August 2008

Why Barry Lyndon?

My adoration of the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon surprises me. If you ask most Stanley Kubrick fans which film they are most likely to slap into their DVD player to watch for a couple scenes, or view with friends, they would probably say Dr. Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange, maybe even The Shining.

But Barry Lyndon? No way.

In the big picture of my movie-watching life, 2001: A Space Odyssey ranks as my favorite Kubrick picture. I’d place it on the upper shelf of the movies that mean the most to me, next to flicks like Chinatown, King Kong, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and a number of others. (I hate trying to chisel a “best of” list in stone, making it fossilized. Film-love should always be growing, expanding, morphing.) But despite my adoration of 2001, I more often find myself slipping the Barry Lyndon DVD into the player to watch a few scenes, and revel in its look and texture. Once in a while, when I have the three hours to spend, I’ll gleefully watch the whole drawling monster of a period film. I’ve even managed to nudge a few friends into watching it with me, although it requires some trickery that I’ll explain below.

So why Barry Lyndon? One of Kubrick’s longest, most subdued, and “deliberately” paced films?

Short answer: texture and appearance.

Variation on short answer: hypnotic involvement in period through use of texture and appearance.

Some good bottles of wine are helpful. In my quest to enjoy wine more, I’ve found Barry Lyndon an important tool. It seems like a “wine-imbibing film,” even more so than Sideways. More about the Lyndon-alcohol connection about this when I discuss the trickery of a group-watch of Barry Lyndon.

Even for somebody who can’t tolerate the movie would admit that Barry Lyndon contains some of the most sumptuous and astonishing photography ever lensed. It’s more than the standard “glowing period photography” that we all know today. Cameraman John Alcott, who also shot the great noir works of Anthony Mann, achieves the look of period paintings with an ingenious use of natural light. Kubrick deserves huge credit for this as well; he always had a strong influence on the camerawork on his films, having started his career in entertainment as a photographer for Look magazine. Critics have made much of the movie’s use of scenes shot by candlelight; Barry’s talk with the German girl at dinner is the most remarkable of these scenes. But the natural lighting is most stunning in the panoramic landscapes of the Irish location shooting; the sight of a man riding on a horse toward a village appears as if it is documentary footage achieved by a time-traveling crew of National Geographic’s top photographers. And just look at the deep reddish blue of the sky! Seriously, there are places when Barry Lyndon looks ridiculous. Nothing should look that beautiful. And yes, the movie won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

An interesting note about how some of the natural-lit scenes were achieved: Alcott and Kubrick purchased specially ground Zeiss lenses that were designed for photography during the 1969 Moon-landing. Any time some nutcase starts making crazy claims about the Moon-landing being faked—and we actually have one of these folks at my office—I just say “Barry Lyndon.” There’s plenty of proof that we did land on the Moon, but Barry Lyndon’s photography clinches it for me.

I’m not a fan of the way that Kubrick created the soundtracks to most of his films. I would prefer he had made greater use of an original composer. I’m one of the small group that believes 2001 would have benefited from the rejected Alex North score. But Barry Lyndon’s compilation of music of the time period is perfect. The mix of military marches, Irish folk tunes (performed by the Chieftains), classical chamber music, and the grand and sinister orchestral arrangements of Handel’s “Sarbande” are entrancing. I especially love the eerie drum and woodwind piece “The Sea-Maidens” used for the scene where Captain Feeney the highwaymen robs Barry on his way to Dublin.

Barry Lyndon is altogether a transporting film, and the best example of period film-making engrossing the viewer so that it’s impossible to tell when the movie was actually made. Only the age of star Ryan O’Neal would tell someone that the movie was shot in the 1970s. It’s more than photography, costuming, music, and performance. There’s something about the pace of the film that removes me totally from the twenty-first century and into the mid-eighteenth. Starting from Barry’s stuttering attempt to woo his cousin Nora Brady—a woman completely unworthy of his affections—to the almost slow-motion duel between Barry and his vengeful son-in-law Lord Bullingdon (a fight leisurely enough to allow one of the participants to stop and vomit in the corner before returning to the duel), the film gives the sense of the different pace of life in the 18th century. Even during a war.

Michael Horden’s strange omniscient narration adds the right touch the proceedings. He gives a distance and an embalmed quality to the emotional aspects of the film, purposely narrating against much of what we see. This is a huge change from the book, which is narrated by Redmond Barry himself with wry humor. Kubrick nixes the humor entirely, and his deity-like narrator presides over the slow march of Barry’s fate.

This leisurely yet entrancing pace thus makes this an terrific film for a getting slowly drunk with a few friends of discerning artistic taste. If you want to convince someone to watch Barry Lyndon with you, bring over some expensive whisky or wine, and slowly imbibe over the whole three hours. I guarantee you a transcendental time.

Epilogue
Barry Lyndon has my favorite movie poster ever.

…they are all equal now.