The longest thing you’ll see all week: Barry Lyndon
I own an unwatched copy of Barry Lyndon because it came with a Kubrick collection I bought a long time ago. I didn’t buy it because I felt the need to own a Kubrick collection. I bought it because it was cheaper than buying 2001, Full Metal Jacket, and Dr. Strangelove separately. Those are two movies I love (half of 2001, half of Full Metal Jacket, and the entirety of Dr. Strangelove is two movies worth of movies). Clockwork Orange is quaint for how it was once considered scandalizing and for the synth Beethoven. I didn’t appreciate The Shining until recently. Eyes Wide Shut is like that scene in The Shining where Shelley Duvall sees two furries having sex, but drawn out into a full movie starring movie stars instead of furries. Like everyone else under 80, I’ve never seen Paths of Glory.
There. Now you have my Kubrick bona fides.
I think you have to go to film school to really “get” Stanley Kubrick. That seems like a lot of effort. So I’m just going to show you what it’s like when a normal person watches a Kubrick movie for the first time. Here we go.
Oh god, is this in black and white?
TTD (time to decolletage): two minutes and 20 seconds! Aww, yeah.
This is gonna be the best Michael Cera sex comedy since Superbad.
Now we’re going straight into a battle scene! Already! Sweet!
Oh, it’s just a parade.
This is the commander of the parade. Apparently, that’s how people used to march.
So, here I am, watching Barry Lyndon.
Yep, Barry Lyndon.
His name isn’t even Barry Lyndon yet.
Two and a half hours to go.
Barry Lyndon, ladies and gentlemen. The winner of the very first Patreon review request drawing.
Okay, that’s not from Barry Lyndon. I was just checking to see if you were still awake.
“To make a long story short,” the narrator says after an hour and a half. There’s still an hour and a half to go. Barry Lyndon is a three-hour movie. And not a three-hour movie in the sense that The Rock, Armageddon, and Transformers: Age of Extinction are three-hour movies because you rounded up. Barry Lyndon is literally three hours plus a few more minutes. With a dirge-like soundtrack and the somber pacing of a Kubrick movie throughout. It’s over 180 minutes of watching American then-movie-star Ryan O’Neal trying to make up his mind about whether to use an Irish accent.
The movie’s name is the main character’s name because it’s a movie about the life of a dude who gets named Barry Lyndon after about two hours. For the first two hours, his name is Edmunton or something. It’s like an origin story before it becomes a Barry Lyndon movie. His superpower is that he’s a “scoundrel”. A “rapscallion”. A “ne’er-do-well”. A “blackguard”. What we would call today an “asshole”. Barry Lyndon came out in the 70s, so your protagonists didn’t have to be likeable. This character evolves over time from a brat to a coward to a deserter to not very good liar to a cheat to an abusive husband to a dickhead stepfather to a negligent parent to a drunk. Was he supposed to earn our sympathy at some point along the way? Or was that the whole point? Losers gonna lose? From the moment that he kicks up a fuss and embarasses himself in public because a girl doesn’t like him — to be fair, many of us have failed that particular early test of adulthood — he seems to represent the worst in men.
But this being a period piece, the worst in men get ahead in the world just fine. There are some intriguing glimpses into this world. The word “picaresque” was invented for Candide and then handed over to this movie, so at several moments, I wish the script had veered off to follow someone else. “You go on ahead, Barry,” the film crew would have called, “We’ll catch up! We’re just going to get some second unit footage of these two gay soldiers taking a bath together in the river, Englishly proclaiming their love to each other!” But nope, that weird little moment stays in the background and the movie tags along behind Ryan O’Neal.
Eventually, the movie leaves Barry’s Irish roots and his career as a soldier. Then it shifts into a society of people in clown make-up.
No, wait, that’s the post-apocalyptic clown make-up from A Boy and His Dog.
No, that’s killer klown from outer space make-up.
No, that’s an evil clown from a dopey Rob Zombie movie.
Ah, here we go.
Yes, those clowns. The ones from the 18th century. I suppose Kubrick’s goal was some sort of authenticity, so fair enough. It’s about as creepy as anything in Clockwork Orange. Weirdly authentic touches like this remind me of Peter Kominsky and Peter Straughan’s staggeringly good Wolf Hall, in which people eat with their fingers and wear weird little half cloaks and distractingly generous codpieces. I love when these details defy our usual Merchant/Ivory/Masterpiece Theatre expectations. That’s the level where I mostly appreciate Barry Lyndon. The weird stuff that had me wondering “Is this because Kubrick is weird, because the 1970s were weird, or because the 1770s were weird? Or, better yet, all three?”
Although I can appreciate it, Barry Lyndon wins the prize for my least favorite Kubrick movie, beating out Eyes Wide Shut because Eyes Wide Shut is 24 minutes shorter. But the real problem with Barry Lyndon, and where it falls apart despite its flashes of Kubrickian brilliance, is Ryan O’Neal playing the titular character. He’s terrible. An American movie star jammed into an English period piece.
Consider the context. Barry Lyndon was shot in 1973. O’Neal was a soap opera star who made his way into Hollywood with the tear-jerker Love Story, which was The Notebook of its day. Then he was the lightweight comedic actor in Paper Moon, alongside his precocious ten-year-old daughter Tatum. Now here he is carrying an epic about an Irish gadfly in the English nobility. He doesn’t have any of the intensity, presence, or unselfconscious cool of the actors in the 70s who changed the way actors act: Gene Hackman in The Conversation, Robert De Niro in Deer Hunter, Al Pacino in The Godfather, John Cazale in any of his five movies, Marlon Brando in Superman. The 70s were a transition from the presentational theatrical acting of classic cinema to the naturalism we expect today. But Ryan O’Neal is just a pretty boy from the good old days. He’s standing uneasily in the 18th century, as American as Hollywood.
He’s also as American as celebrity womanizing, substance abuse, domestic abuse, estrangement from various children, inappropriate use of firearms (he was arrested for firing a gun during a dispute with his son), and more womanizing. In a Vanity Fair interview, he said of his ex-wife Farrah Fawcett, “They’re hard work, these divas.” She had just died after a three-year struggle with cancer. This baby’s expression towards O’Neal says it all.
I usually have no problem separating the artist from his work. Roman Polanski charged with statutory rape, Victor Silva doing prison time for molesting young actors, Richard Wagner an outspoken anti-semite, revered by Nazis. All horrible things. But those aren’t the things I think about watching Rosemary’s Baby, Jeeper’s Creepers, or listening to the Ring Cycle. It helps that I really like those movies, and that opera. But when I’m listening to a Michael Jackson song or a Bill Cosby routine, which I can appreciate even though they don’t do a lot to win me over, I can’t help but think about their misdeeds. Those misdeeds are more prounounced for me than a bunch of dancing zombies in a music video or a comedic tale about Jeffrey crying on an airplane. If I really like what you’ve made, it’s easier for me to look past what you’ve done.
So here’s Ryan O’Neal’s celebrity privilege, trying on various degrees of Irish accent the way a man might try on different hats. During the other actors’ dialogue, he gamely stands there, waiting for his cue. Kubrick holds a long shot on his impassive face. He looks like a man waiting to go back to his trailer. I’m like, yep, this is the guy who Farrah Fawcett died with. Barry Lyndon might be a brilliant bit of filmmaking, but you’d never know from the douchebaggy golden boy in front of it.
Fortunately, Barry Lyndon has a narrator to describe what Ryan O’Neal can’t act. When Barry is sent on an espionage mission to spy on someone, he breaks down and confesses everything to his target. Why? We’d never know unless the narrator explained that Barry was so moved by the nobleman’s appearance and stature that he couldn’t bear to deceive him. It’s a dude with silly make-up and an eyepatch. Ryan O’Neal is crying and confessing that he’s a spy. To be fair, I’m not sure Brando could sell that moment.
But O’Neal simply can’t live up to what the narrator is selling us. And the narrator tries to sell some real whoppers. Barry Lyndon is “very far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct,” we are told. So O’Neal uses almost imperceptible “come hither” looks to lure a married woman out onto a balcony. They start making out. What? She fell for that? From him? The narrator casually mentions Barry’s “great skill with the sword”. When did that happen? We’re 90 minutes into the movie and suddenly Barry Lyndon is one of the deftest swordsmen in all of Europe? O’Neal flails about with a rapier in some of the most ridiculous fight choreography either side of a Jackie Chan movie. Here are some of the highlights:
The winning move is the most hilarious thing you will see in the staidly formal world of fencing. I’m just going to spoil it for you here:
The ol’ behind the back “gotcha!” and for good measure, I’m just going to grab your sword arm because that’s allowed, right?
But I can’t deny parts of Barry Lyndon are great filmmaking. The cinematography is renowned for scenes lit only by candlelight. Dogme filmmaking 30 years before anyone thought up a word for it! This was only possible because Kubrick scored some fancy lenses from the space program. It’s one of those things that looks good for its time. Really, the whole movie looks good, and without relying on supersaturated color to call out the gaudy opulence of the period. Consider the conspicuous pastels in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
Now look at Barry Lyndon’s natural lighting.
Coppola’s visual inspiration is soft French excess. Kubrick’s visual inspiration is period paintings. Barry Lyndon is better than a gorgeous movie. It’s gorgeous on its own terms.
There’s one scene where the close-ups on Ryan O’Neal’s slack expression work. The entire duel sequence near the end of the movie is riveting, even as it holds on O’Neal’s face. The duel progresses in unexpected ways. On this site’s movie podcast, we discuss weekly topics, and we include listener submissions. During a discussion of measurements in movies, a listener named Keith brought up this duel in Barry Lyndon:
Lord Bullingdon is directed to take his ground. Ten paces are then measured to the ground to be taken by Redmond Barry. The duel near the end of Barry Lyndon is ten seconds shy of 9 minutes from pistol loading to the final shot, and every second is required to appreciate the emotional journey of Bullingdon from wretched and weak lordling, pale and sickened by his own failure to a no less wretched figure exhilarated by a fleeting moment of triumph. The disdain of the seconds for the vomiting Bullingdon when, unaware that Barry will delope, he realises he will have to face fire, is echoed by the mockery of the birds in the barn; the clucks of the chickens and throaty susurrus of doves are a jeering chorus.
From the measure of ten paces to the measure of a man in a nine-minute scene. And, yes, I had to look up delope. Don’t pretend you didn’t.
There are other memorable scenes in Barry Lyndon. A boy shuffles down a hardwood floor during a concerto, wearing inappropriately large shoes. The shoes on the floor reminded me of Kubrick luxuriating over the sound of a Big Wheel along partially carpeted floors in The Shining. The texture of sound. The sound of texture. The scene leads up to a fight that can only be described as a “donnybrook”. The grunting nobility, the stress on their costumes, shoes and stockings unable to get purchase on the floorboards, the swirl and thrash of elegantly sleeved limbs. It’s the second best battle scene in Barry Lyndon.
The other battle scene is your usual pre-CG battle scene, in which you marvel at all the wrangling it took to dress, choreograph, and film all these extras. Unfortunately, just as the battle is about to get good, just as the English get within firing range of the French and the two sides are about to start exchanging fire, Barry runs off into the woods and takes the movie with him.
The war itself is an interesting setting. In the US, wars are pretty simple. We’re mostly on our own. Sometimes we get some other English speakers from the UK or Canada or Australia to send a few token soldiers. Then we fight people who are either 100% evil or 100% some other ethnicity. As easy to track as white hats and black hats! If it doesn’t work out, we come home. But wars in Europe, without Americans to resolve them, were premised on alliances and conquered territory and fiercely disputed borders, between nations with different languages but similar faces, fought against the people who lived just over that hill.
“It would take a philosopher and great historian to explain the cause of the Seven Years War,” the narrator says gravely. Wikipedia isn’t a thing yet. In Barry Lyndon, the English are fighting the French. The Prussians fight alongside the English, but separately, and with their own armies in whole other areas. A fellow deserting the English army could, say, run around among the Prussian army pretending he was an envoy, without ever being called out, because the Prussians in their own army don’t know any better. Or do they? Ryan O’Neal even plays a character who’s not a very good actor.
The eventual reveal is that Barry Lyndon is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story in a time and place without America’s predilection for rags-to-riches stories. A title card at the end says all you need to know about what you’ve just watched:
It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.
They don’t even put the word “king” in front of George’s name. The English assume their monarchies. In the United States, we never mention George III without pointing out that he was a king, because we want you to know that’s where we leveled up from a monarchy to a constitutional republic. For the English, “they are all equal now” is a reveal. Us Americans are sitting here fuming that we already knew that three goddamn hours ago.
But here’s the moment where I really understood what I’d just seen:
So that’s what this was? Stanley Kubrick adapting a Thackeray novel. Thackeray? Were all the Dickens novels taken? Even Nicholas Nickleby wasn’t available? Thackeray is the DC Comics of English literature.
I’m nonplussed that the brilliant and eccentric young director of 2001 and Dr. Strangelove and some Kirk Douglas movie spent the early 70s crafting a turgid period piece about the rise and fall of some random rapscallion. But that’s partly the genius of Kubrick. He had a distinct perspective and tone, and he made so many distinct movies without compromising that perspective and tone. A horror movie, cerebral cutting edge sci-fi, a war movie, social commentary, political commentary (although I would argue his best movie, Dr. Strangelove, is also his least Kubrickian movie). If he wants to include turgid period piece on the list, I can’t very well begrudge him.
Besides, I got to see a baby wearing this hat: