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The Titanic Sailed at Dawn

Barry Lyndon directed by Stanley Kubrick at the Sack Cinema 57

By Paul K. Rowe

ONLY STANLEY KUBRICK could have done it--made a film more beautiful, more boring and more expensive than The Great Gatsby. Barry Lyndon is a bad film, a disaster of epic proportions, though its stately pace and self-effacing irony gloss over the worst. There are parts of it that are so bad that an entirely ironic response takes over: "This scene, unbelievably awful though it is, was created and directed by Stanley Kubrick; it must be bad for a good reason." But there is no method to Barry Lyndon's badness, only a few misguided impulses which tear the film in conflicting directions.

Part of the film wants to be a fairy tale, part a travelogue, part a Victorian novel, part an accurate reconstruction of eighteenth-century life. At least Kubrick can't be accused of what many critics are now attacking Costa-Gavras for, being a director condemned--as a bad director might have been in Dante's Inferno--to making the same film over and over again. Barry Lyndon is as unlike anything Kubrick has ever done as it is below the level of anything Kubrick has ever done.

In one way, though, it is similar--like every Kubrick film since Lolita, Barry Lyndon is adapted from a book. Thackeray's Barry Lyndon, like his far greater creation, Becky Sharp, is a social climber at heart. Thackeray's attitude to figures of this kind is a mixture of sympathy and a consciousness that they must not be allowed to succeed. Thus Barry ends his life as a poor invalid in Ireland and Becky as a tattered card sharp making the rounds of tawdry German courts. Yet some sympathy always remains for these characters, either because--like Becky--they are so much brighter and more intelligent than the world around them, or--like Barry--they are so blissfully unaware of their own caddishness. This mixture of feeling is only to be expected from a man who gave the word "snob" its modern meaning and who also wrote The Book of Snobs, by One of their Own.

One of the few successful things Kubrick to preserve some of this ambiguity of sentiment. On the whole, though, Kubrick does not encourage any kind of emotional response, and he certainly doesn't give us enough accurate material to go on. The characters are like the puppets Thackeray describes in the prologue of Vanity Fair--neither rounded human figures nor Dickensian caricatures. Kubrick rarely creates human characters--Dr. Strangelove was a gallery of types, Lolita a collection of perverts, 2001 veered from the banal to the superhuman, and A Clockwork Orange was about the warping of humanity.

This time, though, this tried-and-true approach doesn't work. You can't--even if you're Kubrick--tell a three-hour tale of adventure and a struggle to regain an inheritance without characterization. And you can't make a picaresque film with next to no action. Very little happens in Barry Lyndon. Kubrick's success in 2001 seems to have convinced him that playing the camera lovingly over a tableaux while playing highbrow music on the soundtrack is a substitute for thought and action. Kubrick's sets are at first startling--the lush green beauty of Irish hills and loughs; the crazy-quilt pattern of farmland in the Low Countries; the grounds of an eighteenth-century country house; the glittering interiors of the courts of Central Europe. But the cinematography stays on a travelogue level. Kubrick does nothing to the superb natural scenery to create images; unwilling to create, he simply records.

At first this seems appropriate. The first half of Barry Lyndon comes on like a picaresque fairy tale, though too sardonic and materialistic to be an actual fairy tale, and too dreamy and slow-moving to be truly picaresque. Barry is tricked into enlisting, deserts, impersonates an officer, is caught, joins a card-sharping fellow-Irishman and finally marries the enigmatic Countess of Lyndon, a wealthy, beautiful English aristocrat.

Throughout this first part one's sympathy is basically with Barry. He shows himself to be a reckless, hot-blooded youth, but one with basically decent impulses. His loyalties seem to be in acceptable places, if he has any real loyalties. He hurts few people, and those he does are not left badly off. This is particularly true since we meet almost no one else in the film who could possibly be an alternate focus of sympathy. But even in this relatively smooth first half the signs of impending disaster for this film are apparent.

THE FIRST AND WORST is Ryan O'Neal himself. Kubrick has never made so gross or so unnecessary a casting error. There are plenty of handsome actors around, and almost any of them could have been less of a gobbler in this part. While everyone else is speaking in Irish brogue or the King's English, O'Neal sounds like a smooth-voiced Jack Nicholson out of Doonesbury. "How could you do this to me, Nora?" he asks in a deadpan American voice that could have come straight out of Gidget Goes Loco. O'Neal's Barry has no charm and is the film's decisive failure; you can forgive a rogue anything so long as he is graceful and entertaining. O'Neal's Barry is a lout at bottom, and he seems to be so incompetent an actor that it's hard to tell if this is what Kubrick intended. O'Neal is not only opaque but insubstantial--if you poked him he wouldn't be there. There's nothing behind the mask, and the mask is boring.

The same trouble--a confusion of the profound with the merely unintelligible--mars Marisa Berenson's Countess of Lyndon. Perhaps Kubrick wanted her to look like those enigmatic Tuscan profiles her great uncle used to sell to Boston brahmins. She falls in love with Barry, marries him, remains statuesque but apathetic, and finally becomes religious. She is weak, and as such the audience tends to sympathize with her. But it is unclear whether Barry treats her rightly or wrongly. We see nothing of their courtship. We see little of their relations in marriage. We just don't know.

The only things we do know in Barry Lyndon are told us by the narrator. The narrator has no personality. His presence is obstrusive--sometimes only his comments make sense out of a scene, and his voice has the all-knowing tone of the unctuous omniscient author. Bur he doesn't offer omniscience--only a combination of the tritest of truisms ("A young man's heart is...") and the most basic information ("A year later they were married.") The voice is Michael Hordern's and he sounds a lot like the late Edward Everett Horton narrating Fractured Fairy Tales early Saturday morning.

After a pretentious intermission, Barry Lyndon goes from bad to worse. The fairy tale atmosphere of the first part dissolves into a full-fledged Victorian novel of materialism--a family struggle over inheritance, Barry's mother's desire for her son to get a peerage, the social ostracism that Barry faces after an outburst of physical violence. Kubrick's elegant touch is not entirely lost, but it is squandered and irreversibly diluted. At last a strange plot line emerges. The Countess of Lyndon's son by her first husband, Bullingdon, conceives a hatred for his stepfather that is largely justified by Barry's behavior. Barry becomes the doting father of a spoiled brat, Bryan, who kills himself riding a horse. Bryan's death scene is the most treacliest tearjerker since Charles Dickens killed off Little Nell. As stonefaced Barry and the Countess sit on either side of his pure white bed, the little eight-year-old blond--his head bandaged to add more white to the picture--asks if he will go to heaven. Kubrick must have been throwing up into his Design Research director's chair.

AFTER THAT, it's all downhill--although as far as any standards of art, taste and technique go, this scene was the low point of the film. Barry takes to drink and the Countess tries to commit suicide in a scene in which Marisa Berenson sloughs her phlegm and becomes a flailing dervish. Bullingdon wreaks his revenge. It's hard to say what we are supposed to feel when he is successful and the movie ends at last. The narrator had more or less given away the conclusion an hour before, and dissipated most of the suspense. The Countess remains morose, so perhaps we should be unhappy too. Kubrick insists in the dialogue of the last scenes that Barry's crime had been the wanton and irresponsible destruction of a "fine family fortune"--a crime that would undoubtedly have seemed more heinous to Thackeray and his readers than it does to us and, presumably, to Kubrick. Maybe we are supposed to sympathize with Barry after all.

But one cannot go on indefinitely faulting Kubrick for the emotional content of the film. His last few films have been primarily intellectual. Unfortunately the field of the intellect here is as barren as the emotional landscape. Those of us who look to Kubrick as one of the few major directors capable of dealing with important issues on a grand scale must be disappointed. The film bypasses all the historical and social issues of the period in which it ostensibly takes place. The eighteenth century functions as a backdrop and no more. George III puts in a cameo appearance and speaks one line to Barry. That is all. The brief battle scenes at the beginning are nothing compared to Kubrick's early Paths of Glory. Even the legal issues of the inheritance, which every Victorian novelist took seriously, are never explained. One reason it is difficult to judge Bullingdon and his revenge, for example, is that you can't tell whether he would have come into his inheritance peacefully without having to drive Barry out with a gun.

Duelling is the central event of Barry Lyndon, but is a central metaphor without meaning. It doesn't suggest that life is a contest of individuals, it doesn't suggest that duelling is a ridiculous feudal survival, and it doesn't say anything about Barry's place as a gentleman or what a gentleman is, to name just three possibilities. Any of these could have given flesh to the film's skeletal frame. Does Barry's adherence to rules of duelling make him a gentleman, or does he take advantage of the rules? After his card-sharping experiences on the continent the latter verdict seems more likely. You could, if you wanted to stretch things, see Barry's final act in the final duel as confirming his inner status as a gentleman while insuring that he loses the outer status. But how seriously are we supposed to take these duels? We can hardly be expected to take them in the spirit of picaresque amorality when they are the ordering principle of the whole plot, and we can hardly be expected to consider them dead-pan seriously in the Douglas Fairbanks tradition. Like the duels, possible parallels between the life histories of Barry and Bullingdon lead nowhere. Both lose their inheritance, both struggle against their family, and so on, but the meaning of all this similarity is nil.

It has to be remembered that Thackeray's Barry Lyndon is, unlike Kubrick's adaptation, an eminently comprehensible book. Kubrick's problems can be seen in that he had to go outside Thackeray and invent the only scene with real suspense, the final duel. Kubrick has always altered the material he films--but in the past he has enriched it; in this case he has imposed an artificial anemia.

WHEN CRITICS dislike a work they don't want to pan publicly, they shower superlatives on its technique. Barry Lyndon, critic after critic has written, is an extraordinarily beautiful film. Unwilling to admit they saw Barry Lyndon as a failure (because they know Kubrick is smarter than they are and may have one more trick up his sleeve), they tell us how "beautiful", how "visually stunning" this clunker is. Up to a point, they are right. Barry Lyndon is an unusually beautiful film. But $11 million still buys an awful lot of beauty in almost any art form and Barry Lyndon hardly breaks any records in the cinema beauty contest. Take, for example, the many indoor scenes Kubrick shot using only genuine candlelight--something Hollywood has never been able to achieve before for lack of a fast enough lens. Kubrick's Zeiss superfast lens does the trick alright, but leaves the faces out of focus. And the result is not qualitatively different from the kind of fake candlelight that Hollywood has been using for decades.

In the end the only way to argue that Kubrick's film is not a failure is to claim that it is a parody. Take a flawed novel no one's read, put a god-awful actor in the title role, put some second-rate music on the soundtrack instead of Beethoven or Strauss, and shoot an expensive glittering movie. Laugh as critics try to find meaning in vacuity.

It's too bad this was the film for which Hollywood gave Kubrick carte blanche. They won't want to do it again very soon. Movie audiences should be more forgiving, for we owe Kubrick more than we can ever repay. But this time around you'd be better off watching Masterpiece Theater.

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