by John Hofsess
While watching Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, I realized a story about a visitor to an art exhibit who, having studied each canvas with increasing perplexity, came up to the artist who painted the pictures and said, “I like your work—but I’m not sure exactly what it is you’re trying to say.” The artist replied, “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have bothered painting it.”
The same might be said of Barry Lyndon: there isn’t much for a verbally-oriented person to chew on. There’s no conceptual or discursive aspect, no kernel of pop sociology or philosophical nutmeat. It isn’t at all like Nashville or Last Tango in Paris, where a knowing reviewer could write the kind of richly allusive in-depth analysis that critics have long done for novels. Instead, Barry Lyndon throws down the gauntlet to those film critics who are really literary or drama critics in disguise and tests their ability to appreciate qualities of form, composition, color, mood, music, editing rhythms— among other cinematic qualities that generally do not greatly interest them. Words are a film critic’s primary tools and when a movie doesn’t lend itself to verbal translation— discussions about character, ideas, values, plot development, and so on—many critics are inclined to dismiss it as unimportant or as a failure.
Being a “word-man” myself, I well understood the discontent of certain reviewers with the film’s lack of witty or memorable dialogue, its lack of provocative ideas, its lack of character development and an emotionally engaging central performance.
Film critics are supposed to write with the certitude of exclamation marks; unlike philosophers, they cannot build a reputation based on doubt. Yet, as my deadline drew near, I found myself turning into a question mark. How much easier my task would be, I reflected, if Barry Lyndon were like Kubrick’s early films. They were graced by fine performances—one recalls Adolphe Menjou and Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, James Mason in Lolita and, with special affection, Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove—and occasionally they even produced quotable lines, like the ones in Strangelove about “preverts.” They had definite subjects and were easy to talk about. In those days, one went to his films and came home with a message.
Beginning with 2001, however, as Kubrick began pushing inspiration and obsession to their outer limits, insisting on the primacy of a film experience that was essentially ambiguous and hard to explicate, one went to a Kubrick film and came home floundering. Like it or not, your mind had been grazed by something original.
Not everyone liked it. When 2001 opened in 1968, it was greeted with derisive snorts from practically every major critic except Penelope Gilliatt. “A monumentally unimaginative movie,” wrote Pauline Kael. “A major disappointment,” said Stanley Kauffmann. “Incredibly boring,” commented Renata Adler. “A regrettable failure,” wrote John Simon, shrugging it off as “a shaggy God’s story.” “A disaster,” said Andrew Sarris.
Bearing in mind the cold critical reception accorded 2001, I once asked Kubrick— shortly before the London opening of A Clockwork Orange—if he had ever learned anything about his work from reading film criticism. His response was a fast, firm “No.”
“To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity,” he said. “Yet very few critics ever see a film twice or write about films from a leisurely, thoughtful perspective. The reviews that distinguish most critics, unfortunately, are those slambang pans which are easy to write and fun to write and absolutely useless. There’s not much in a critic showing off how clever he is at writing silly, supercilious gags about something he hates.”
During a recent visit to England, I talked with Kubrick again at his home in Borehamwood, outside London. This time, of course, our main topic of discussion was Barry Lyndon, and I had even arrived armed with an annotated edition of The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Obviously, I was much better prepared to talk book than film.
“Quick!” Kubrick said to one of his assistants. “Hand me that Times article on Barry Lyndon, so I can discuss Thackeray.” The piece in question was a lengthy essay in the London Sunday Times describing in detail Thackeray’s struggle to write the novel against a background of gambling debts and marital unhappiness. Kubrick’s irony was playful but pointed. “The most important parts of a film,” he said, “are the mysterious parts— beyond the reach of reason and language.”
When I asked him about the apparent change in his films—from the early, more conventional dramas to the stylistic experiments of 2001 and later films, with their emphasis on images and music—Kubrick said, “There may be a change in the films but it doesn’t mean there is any personal change in me. What happens in the film business is something like this: when a scriptwriter or director starts out, producers and investors want to see everything written down. They judge the worth of a screenplay as they would a stage play, and ignore the very great differences between the two. They want good dialogue, tight plotting, dramatic development. What I have found is that the more completely cinematic a film is, the less interesting the screenplay becomes. Because a screenplay isn’t meant to be read, it’s to be realized on film.
“So if my earlier films seem more verbal than the later ones, it is because I was obliged to conform to certain literary conventions. Then, after some success, I was given greater freedom to explore the medium as I preferred. There’ll be no screenplay of Barry Lyndon published, because there is nothing of literary interest to read.”
Kubrick’s point is well taken. There is a scene in Barry Lyndon, for example, which in Kubrick’s screenplay simply read, “Barry duels with Lord Bullingdon.” Just that, nothing more. Yet what finally reached the screen is one of the most stunning sequences in modern film. The scene runs about six minutes and if little happens in terms of actual content—three shots are fired and Barry is wounded in the leg by his stepson—a great deal happens in terms of style. It took six weeks—42 working days—just to edit the sequence. To find the music—Handel’s “Sarabande”—Kubrick listened to every available recording of 17th and 18th-century music that he could acquire, literally thousands of LPs. What he achieves in such moments of the film might be called cinematic gestalts—inspired combinations of words, images, music and editing rhythms, creating a kind of artistic experience that no other medium can convey.
Eventually, Kubrick may end up in a cul-de-sac, for he is following a similar line of development—using the “grammar” of the film medium—to that pursued by James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov in fiction. There is no question that Joyce and Nabokov—more than any other writers in the 20th-century—brilliantly explored and expanded the limits of language and the structure of novels, yet both were led irresistibly and obsessively to cap their careers with those cold and lifeless masterpieces, “Finnegans Wake” and “Ada,” more to be deciphered than read by a handful of scholars whose pleasure is strictly ratiocination. It is characteristic of such careers that people keep saying, “This time you’ve really gone too far! We liked your last film or novel—but that’s it!” The price of growth is disaffection.
Two weeks after seeing Barry Lyndon, I still hadn’t formed a hard judgment of it. I kept wanting it to “add up” to something profound. But Victorian readers were equally dissatisfied within Thackeray’s story about a young Irish rake on the make who develops an inordinate ambition to attain wealth, power and prestige, who gains the lot unscrupulously and then loses it with another turn of fortune’s wheel. Readers complained bitterly that the story lacked a point, a purpose, and above all, the customary dosage of moral edification.
“I have no head above my eyes,” replied Thackeray to these criticisms—a line that Kubrick could borrow to advantage. A second viewing of the film did not alter my lack of resolution. Then one night about another week later, I played the soundtrack recording—Handel’s “Sarabande,” Women of Ireland” by The Chieftans, and so on, and suddenly experienced a strong surge of emotion. Bits and pieces of the film—Redmond Barry’s tremulous first love with his cousin Nora, the gaming tables banked in candlelight, the dueling sequence, among others—came rushing back to life, and I realized that they had become imperishable images in my memory, and that I was seeing a film and appreciating qualities in a manner quite new to me.
Like many other critics and filmgoers, I have grown so accustomed to films based on literary conventions and familiar structures, that to see a film which stretches one’s awareness of what can be achieved in the medium seems prickly and puzzling. Kubrick’s films have a way—at least with some people—of working on in the mind, of passing through all the stages from irritation to exhilaration. And curiously enough—for critics are supposed to be the most progressive an perceptive of filmgoers—it is the general public in this case, unencumbered by literary prejudices, that has done most of the leading in making 2001 and A Clockwork Orange not just films of immense popularity but of steadily growing stature.
It may be only half-true to say that the split over Kubrick’s films is mainly between people who are verbally oriented and those who are visually oriented. Instead, the basic division seems to be between people who are fixed in their notions of what a film is or should be, and those of more flexible personality who are willing to respond to an esthetic experiment. Maybe the only abstract maxim that one can derive from Kubrick’s new film is: “Openness is everything.”
The New York Times, January 11, 1976