Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kubrick's Barry Lyndon


A delicious, slightly erotic moment whilst gambling with cards in one of the now-famous candlelight scenes from this Kubrick masterpiece. Watching these scenes seems particularly appropriate for this holiday time of year. Click for larger images. These screenshots are not, of course, of Blu-ray quality and don't do justice to the actual experience of viewing the film.

Stanley Kubrick is my favor all-time director, as I have mentioned before. Though he only made a dozen commercial films, many of these are cinematic masterpieces. It is true that his films are more rationally constructed than emotional. But, the overall effect he achieves with each success is fundamentally emotional for me. I have no idea why this is so.

After his string of critically acclaimed, controversial, and (to varying degrees) commercially profitable films, Paths to Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Stangelove (1964), 2001 (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick had by 1972 established himself as a unique and powerful independent director. But, the film he had always wanted to make,
a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, remained unrealized for various reasons (mostly financial). Kubrick eventually collected a library of some 1500 books on Napoleon and the Napoleonic Period. He wanted authenticity in his drama.

Instead, Kubrick’s next effort resulted in the most beautiful movie ever shot on film. More exquisite than even a visual feast like Avatar, the entire experience of Barry Lyndon (1975) is one of almost gorgeous rapture. The story is thoroughly slow and (almost) devoid of action; the unconventional winding rise and fall of a common man up to aristocracy only to lose everything including his left leg. A few skirmish battles, a fist-fight, a whipping, three duels, some sharp fencing, there are some tense scenes but the pacing is extended between them by an authentic slowness that represents the sense of Time of the society depicted. Barry is lucky and also very good at fist-fighting and fencing, which help him along before his fall.

For all his faults, Barry was a superb swordsman.

Barry's troubles really started when he began to deal harshly with his step-son, who jealously hated him from the beginning.


This shot is composed in the style of classic rococo painters like Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Ever since I shifted my new DVD purchases to mostly new Blu-ray purchases and enjoyed watching films in outstanding high-definition, I have wanted to
watch Barry Lyndon in high-def. But, for years it was not available in that format. Finally, this past summer, a Blu-ray rendering of the film was made available – exclusively by amazon.com as it turned out.

I purchased the Blu-ray a few weeks back and have not been disappointed; though with Barry Lyndon you have to remember that Kubrick intentionally shot almost the entire film in soft focus, with natural light and candlelight, like a painting. For that reason, even in high-def many scenes in the film are not as sharp as a typical Blu-ray. Nevertheless,
the differences between the DVD and the Blu-ray are obvious. The film is much more vivid and, therefore, ever more breathtaking in many of its cinematic moments.

Kubrick moved from New York to England in 1972 with the idea that he was going to make his Napoleon film. But, for various reasons I won’t go in to here, he instead rechanneled all his research and acquired knowledge into making Barry Lyndon, which is based on a novel written in 1843 by
William Makepeace Thackeray taking place roughly 50 years before Napoleon’s time. Kubrick would live in England the rest of his life.

Kubrick had attained a level in his career where he could make a film on almost any subject and receive some guaranteed distribution by a major movie company. There were hundreds of thousands of movie-goers world-wide that would automatically see any film he made. With Barry Lyndon he maintained so much secrecy about the film’s subject matter that he got Warner Brothers to back the film with only the knowledge that it would star
Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, where it would be shot, and dates on which shooting would occur. The story and nature of the film was undisclosed. The secrecy was soon spoiled by Variety Magazine just before filming began in January 1974. Kubrick’s agreement with Warner Brothers entitled him to 40% of the profits of the film.

Ryan O'Neal as Redmond Barry, later Barry Lyndon.


Marisa Berenson as Lady Honoria Lyndon.

By then Kubrick had resolved many problems with doing his authentic period piece. Not the smallest of them was how to use completely natural lighting throughout the film, especially nighttime candlelit scenes. For those wonderful, now somewhat iconic, parlor scenes Kubrick used special lenses recently developed by the Zeiss Company for NASA’s Apollo Program.

Authentic costumes and interiors play a major role in the effect of the film.

But, working in complete candlelight also created the problem of being unable to see what the director was shooting through the eyepiece of the camera. So, Kubrick retrofitted the viewfinder to an older Technicolor technology that allowed him to see faces and expressions of detail in low light. This was pushing the limits of cinematography at the time.

The results are stunning. “Kubrick remained adamant about shooting on location and became more and more obsessed with the concept of acquiring what he called the patina of the period interiors. The candlelight would create a purity of image, combined with actual period architecture and texture. The eighteenth century could be rendered in a painterly documentary reality.” (
LoBrutto, page 380)

Much of the film has a soft glow to it. Often exquisite.

At just over 3 hours, the film’s notoriously slow pacing is the chief complaint of most who can’t endure it. But, this pacing has fundamental purpose and it affects the viewer who accepts the film for what it is. “Barry Lyndon doesn’t breathe history – for history is something in airtight cabinets and varnished paintings. Rather, it exhales historical life. We are encouraged to ‘look around,’ take our time, find felicity in a draped curtain or awe an army’s battle formation. The camera continuously strikes up an observer’s attitude; takes are long, allowing the manners of the period to describe a way of life, not just make a plot point.” (
Ruchti, etc., page 246)

A British regiment (actually Irish) parades before a local gathering. Kubrick set it all against a giant breast complete with nipple.


The regiment later makes a very bloody charge in a realistic skirmish scene from the Seven Years' War.

It was in this film that Kubrick first pushed the number of takes in a given shot to the extreme. 20 to 50 retakes of every shot was not uncommon. Kubrick experimented more fully with the effects of prolonged repeated takes on a scene. How actors would subtly vary their performances out of sheer boredom or frustration. He would let the camera run and run in what amounted to filmed rehearsals of scenes just to capture something small but spontaneous to include in the final version of the film.

While the scenes in Barry Lyndon were rehearsed to death, Kubrick nevertheless allowed his actors a great deal of latitude in developing their own interpretations of their characters. Rather than dictate everything, he consistently guided in small details. “Now, let’s try it this way” or “more of this and less of that” were frequent reasons for further shooting but the first takes were given by each actor mostly working on a self-interpration. Constant tweaks with specific direction based upon rather self-searched acting was his modus operandi with the intent of capturing not acting but behavior.

Kubrick succeeds at every artistic level. Musically rich, as with all Kubrick works where he enjoyed complete control, Barry Lyndon is rewarding. Kubrick’s musical choices for his films are dazzling in almost every case. Kubrick’s ear was every bit as brilliant as his eye and mind. “The extraordinary sequence when Barry duels Lord Bullingdon was just one line in Kubrick’s screenplay reading, “Barry duels with Lord Bullingdon.” The sequence took forty-two working days to edit. Kubrick had listened to every available recording of seventh- and eighteenth-century music, acquiring thousands of records to find
Handel’s sarabande used to score the scene.” (LeBrutto, page 405)

The final duel in between Barry and his step-son. Barry is shot in the leg.

The iconic opening shot. The duel where Barry's father is killed.

Barry duels a British officer. He wins the slow, tense encounter.

Unfortunately for Stanley this film would not be very profitable. It made money throughout Europe, in France particularly. But, it was blandly received in the US. By Hollywood accounting standards, it never turned a profit domestically. Kubrick made very little money on the film. This lack of financial success was a highly motivating factor for him to make his next film more lucrative for his personal finances. He made a horror film based on a pop genre writer’s best-seller novel starring the best actor of that time,
Jack Nicholson. The Shining would be his highest domestic grossing film and a great money-maker worldwide.

Watching Barry Lyndon is a wonderful experience even if on DVD. But, I am very pleased with my Blu-ray upgrade of this film’s unique and supreme visual experience. Barry Lyndon is the ultimate period film. Nothing like it surpasses it. You can get a small sampling of what the film is like by watching
this youtube tribute here.


These screenshots attempt to convey Kubrick's knack for achieving scenes of painting-like quality. Click to enlarge. Though they are only web pics they are glimpses of the visual experience of the film.








No studio lighting was used throughout the film. It is all natural - or candlelight. Simply gorgeous.

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