Thursday, June 16, 2016


Like the life of its protagonist, Barry Lyndon only came to be by chance. Stanley Kubrick planned to make a film about Napoleon Bonaparte but, when mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis not only beat him to the punch but also flopped at the box office in so doing, nobody with any money really felt like more failure need be associated with that particular subject. Kubrick would spend the final twenty years of his life researching and planning and aborting plans for a handful of films, but in the early 70s, he wasn’t about to let all that preparation go to waste. He was at the peak of his critical and commercial viability, and Hollywood was feeling particularly generous to directors at this point. Especially ones who made money. So he funneled all that enthusiasm and research for his Napoleon film into an adaptation of a lesser-read novel by William Makepeace Thackeray (set not too far from from Napoleon’s time) that cost a great deal of money, fared poorly at the box office, and has figured very little into the legacy of one of cinema’s most renowned and popular filmmakers. This may be fitting for a film that summarizes itself with a sort of complacent irony - “good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now” - but hardly for what it is, which is Kubrick’s absolute masterpiece.

Broadly, the film deals with the productive years in the life of an unlucky, foolhardy, self-obsessed Irish man named Redmond Barry as he gains and loses a series of increasingly large fortunes on his way towards (and, as we’re told well in advance, out of) the life of a gentleman. He doesn’t set out with precisely this goal, but it is a class distinction that prevents him from first getting what he most wants - the affections of his cousin Nora, who engages herself instead to a British captain. While most of his life is spent just trying to gain the upper hand in petty conflicts, such conflicts have a way of escalating themselves. Already without an allegiance to family, Barry’s ties to his country are cast out when a failed desertion attempt from one army lands him in the service of another. He has nothing and no one, set up to be one of those self-made men with whom literature is so routinely obsessed. But Kubrick (who also wrote the screenplay, one of only two he would write alone) instead suggests this independence leaves him without much of a soul. He offers little regard to anyone close to him - including the family he soon forms - perhaps because he never felt he got the same for himself.

Though Kubrick’s family was fairly well off (his father, a physician, made a good income), he grew up in the Bronx during a time when Prohibition-era gangsters had ravished the area and most people of means relocated. It would be perhaps too psychoanalytical to suggest this for the reason his films tend to at once admire the upper class (there’s a lot of talk of “the best people” here and elsewhere) and regard them with great suspicion. Here, Barry becomes a worse human being the more money he accrues. In The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, the wealthy are a closed-off phantom society from which great evil flows. As with his other films involving the armed services (Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, and even Spartacus to a degree), Barry Lyndon demonstrates a keen awareness at how little one man can alter his own destiny, which is forever at the discretion and determination of rich men in grand halls, plotting the movements of the lower class with a series of pins on a map. That Barry rises in class scarcely helps him escape their influence, as he finds himself constantly trying to fulfill the impossible demands of the high life. And where John Alcott’s stunning cinematography highlighted the natural beauty of Barry’s homeland, the grand halls of his eventual estate are nearer to museums than homes; more a place to pose than to rest. The lighting scheme was designed to mimic natural light, often famously relying only on candles, and natural light does not reach all corners of a concert hall the way it does a simple field. Barry can try to excel here, but he cannot live truly and honestly. There are ultimately too many parties to throw, monies to be spent, and customs to attend to, and his temper - the very thing that cast him out of home and hearth - is bound to get the better of him before long.

For many protagonists in Kubrick’s late career, any kind of change proves impossible - Alex rounds out A Clockwork Orange uncured, Jack never escapes The Shining’s maze, and Joker continues marching to Full Metal Jacket’s beat. Only in Eyes Wide Shut’s hilarious, transcendent finale does the possibility of hope and redemption emerge, however teasingly, for the first time in Kubrick’s career since perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film ended in (re)birth, Eyes Wide Shut with an act that creates. Barry Lyndon suggests birth, suggests death, but is more concerned with the endless cycle of life, in which we circle around the same mistakes in different environs until we’re eventually done in by a single act of kindness. Kubrick was not without his cynical side, and Barry Lyndon’s narrator approaches the story with a sense of detached amusement, but that just makes the tragedy sting all the more. It reminds us how coldly we regard life from a similar distance. It’s easy enough to joke about someone who’s been dead two hundred years. Perhaps it’s even necessary. They’re all equal now anyway.

The American Cinematheque’s series “Another Take on Kubrick,” featuring his later films, takes place June 24 – 26, 2016 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and cohost of the CriterionCast podcast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.