Home CINEMA BARRY LYNDON: KUBRICK’S GRANDEST GAMBLE – by Richard Schickel

BARRY LYNDON: KUBRICK’S GRANDEST GAMBLE – by Richard Schickel

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Barry Lyndon (1975) - Stanley Kubrick on the set

by Richard Schickel

FIRST PARADOX: Barry Lyndon, a story of an 18th century Irish gentleman-rogue, is the first novel of a great 19th century writer, William Makepeace Thackeray. It shows early signs of a genius that would nourish only after creative struggle and personal adversity. In time, this forgotten book becomes the basis for the tenth feature film by a well-established, well-rewarded 20th century artist—Director Stanley Kubrick. In it, he demonstrates the qualities that eluded Thackeray: singularity of vision, mature mastery of his medium, near-reckless courage in asserting through this work a claim not just to the distinction critics have already granted him but to greatness that time alone can — and probably will — confirm.

SECOND PARADOX: As he did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick relies not on words —he is as sparing of them as Thackeray is profligate—but images to tell his story. Yet Barry Lyndon lacks the experimental, hallucinatory visual quality that made 2001 a cultural touchstone of the tripped-out ’60s. Kubrick has shot and edited Barry Lyndon with the classic economy and elegance associated with the best works of the silent cinema. The frantic trompe l’oeil manner — all quick cuts and crazy angles — recently favored by ambitious film makers (and audiences) has been rigorously rejected.

This drive for cinematic purity has consumed three years of Kubrick’s life and $11 million of Warner Bros.’ money. The film is 3 hr., 4 min. and 4 sec. long, and it does not easily yield up its themes. “The essence of dramatic form,” says Kubrick, “is to let an idea come over people without its being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.”

THIRD PARADOX: Barry Lyndon is obviously a costume drama but in a much more literal sense than any movie easily dismissed by that contemptuous phrase. Many of the clothes are not costumes at all but authentic antiques. The equally real interiors arid landscapes—every foot of the film was shot on location —are intended to function as something more than exotic delights for the eye. Close scrutiny of the settings reveals not only the character of the people who inhabit them but the spirit of the entire age as Kubrick understands it.

Though Barry Lyndon includes the duels, battles and romantic intrigues that we are conditioned to expect in movies about the past, it more often than not cuts away from this easy-to-savor material. This cool distancing suggests that the melodramatic passions normally sustaining our interest in films are petty matters. This vision of the past, like Kubrick’s vision of the future in 2001, invites us to experience an alien world not through its characters but with them—sensorially, viscerally. Stanley Kubrick’s idea of what constitutes historical spectacle does not coincide with many people’s — least of all, those in Warner’s sales department. Which brings us to the…

FOURTH PARADOX: Having made what amounts to an art-film spectacle — something few directors since Griffith and Eisenstein have brought off — Kubrick now requires that his backers go out and sell the damned thing. Because of distribution and promotion costs, the film must gross at least $30 million to make a profit. Kubrick has his own ideas about how to proceed: a tasteful ad campaign, a limited-release pattern permitting good word of mouth to build, saturation bookings timed to coincide with the Academy Award nominations that the director and studio believe are inevitable. Warner salesmen wish they had something simpler on then-hands—a great sloshy romance like Dr. Zhivago, for instance, or at least a rollicking rip-off of olden times, like Tom Jones. Now Kubrick will help sell his picture. Among other things, he employs a bookkeeper to chart how films have played in the first-run houses of key cities, so his films can be booked into those with the best records. But the fact remains that his work habits are anything but helpful to publicists.

Multimillion-dollar movies are usually open to the press as they are being made; their heavy tread can be heard clumping toward the theaters for a year prior to release. Kubrick’s locations, however, were closed. Not a single publicity still emerged without the director’s express approval, which was almost never granted. Thus the only word on Barry Lyndon came from actors and technicians, none of them privy to Kubrick’s vision, and some wearied and literally sickened by his obsessive perfectionism.

At age 47, he is the creator of one of cinema’s most varied and successful bodies of work; in addition to 2001, it includes Paths of Glory, Lolita, Doctor Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. He enjoys the rare right to final cut of his film without studio advice or interference. Warner executives were not permitted to see more than a few bits of it until the completed version — take it or leave it — was screened for them just three weeks ago. To put it mildly, it is hard for them to get a proper buildup going for their expensive property on such short notice.

FIFTH PARADOX: Stanley Kubrick himself. Barry Lyndon may be an austere epic, but an epic it surely is. Such works pose complex logistical and technical problems that must be solved along with the aesthetic questions that arise every time a new camera setup is chosen. Kubrick’s basic cast and crew of 170 — augmented by hundreds of extras and supporting specialists as needed — crawled from location to location across Ireland and England for 8 months. Normally, the commanders of cinematic operations on this scale are outgoing, not to say colorfully flamboyant characters.

That, however, is precisely what Kubrick is not. He is almost reclusively shy, “a demented perfectionist, according to the publicity mythology around me.” This myth began building when he decided to stay on in England after shooting Lolita there in 1961. He found it “helpful not to be constantly exposed to the fear and anxiety that prevail in the film world.” He lives and does all pre-and post-production work in a rambling manor house defended by two wooden walls and furnished in early nondescript. He rarely ventures forth even to London, less than an hour away. He prefers that the world—in controllable quantities—be brought to him via telex, telephone, television. All the books and movies this omnivorous reader-viewer requires are delivered to the retreat he shares with his third wife Christiane, his three daughters, three dogs and six cats. He is, says his friend, Film Critic Alexander Walker, “like a medieval artist living above his workshop.” According to an actress who once worked for him, he is also “a mole.” What has the mole wrought? Is the finished film worth the pains he has taken with it—and given to his associates over the long years of its creation? The answer is a resounding yes.

Kubrick does not know what drew him to this tale of a scoundrel’s rise and fall. Beyond noting that he has always enjoyed Thackeray, he does not try to explain his choice: “It’s like trying to say why you fell in love with your wife — it’s meaningless.”

Possibly, but Kubrick’s curiosity was probably aroused by the chance to explore a character who is his antithesis. About his work Kubrick is the most self-conscious and rational of men. His eccentricities — secretiveness, a great need for privacy — are caused by his intense awareness of time’s relentless passage. He wants to use time to “create a string of masterpieces,” as an acquaintance puts it. Social status means nothing to him, money is simply a tool of his trade.

Barry, on the other hand, suffers a monstrous complacency. He betrays not the slightest moral or intellectual self-awareness. Born poor but with a modest claim to gentleman’s rank, he never doubts his right to rise to the highest ranks of the nobility. Nor does he ever seem to question the various means by which he pursues his end: army desertion, card sharping, contracting a loveless marriage in order to acquire a fortune. As for time, it means nothing to him. He squanders it, as he does money, in pursuit of pleasure and the title he is desperate for.

In the novel, Thackeray used a torrent of words to demonstrate Barry’s lack of self-knowledge. Narrating his own story, Barry so obviously exaggerates his claims to exemplary behavior that the reader perceives he is essentially a braggart and poltroon. Daringly, Kubrick uses silence to make the same point. “People like Barry are successful because they are not obvious—they don’t announce themselves,” says Kubrick. So it is mainly by the look in Ryan O’Neal’s eyes —a sharp glint when he spies the main chance, a gaze of hurt befuddlement when things go awry — that we understand Barry’s motives. And since he cannot see his own face, we can be certain he is not aware of these self-betrayals. According to Kubrick, Barry’s silence also implies that “he is not very bright,” he is an overreacher who “gets in over his head in situations he doesn’t fully understand.” Though a certain dimness makes him a less obviously comic figure than he is in the book, it also makes him a more believable one. And it permits Kubrick to demonstrate, without shattering the movie’s tone, Barry’s two nearly saving graces—physical gallantry and desperate love of his only child, whose death is the film’s emotional high point and the tragedy that finally undoes Barry.

With the exception of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, this is the first time that Kubrick has moved beyond pop archetypes and taken the measure of a man with a novelist’s sense of psychological nuance. Still, it is not as a study in character that Barry Lyndon will be ultimately remembered. The structure of the work is truly novel. In addition, Kubrick has assembled perhaps the most ravishing set of images ever printed on a single strip of celluloid. These virtues are related: the structure would not work without Kubrick’s sustaining mastery of the camera, lighting and composition; the images would not be so powerful if the director had not devised a narrative structure spacious enough for them to pile up with overwhelming impressiveness.

As a design, Barry Lyndon is marvelously simple. The first half offers something like a documentary of 18th century manners and morals. To be sure, a lot happens to Barry in this segment — first love, first duel, first wanderings, first military combat — but he remains pretty much a figure in the foreground, rather like those little paper cutouts architects place on their models to give a sense of scale. What matters to the director is the world beyond, the world Barry is so anxious to conquer.

And it is a great world, especially to the modern eye, accustomed as it is to cluttered industrialized landscapes, and architecture and decor that stress the purely functional. The recurring visual motif of the film — especially obvious in the first portion — is a stately pullback. Typically, it starts on some detail, like a closeup of an actor, then moves slowly back to reveal the simple beauty of the countryside that is as indifferent to the player’s petty pursuits as he is impervious to its innocent charm. The lighting in all the outdoor sequences appears to be completely natural and patiently—expensively—waited for. Frequently, most of the emotional information for a scene may be found in the light, before anyone says a word. A superb example of this occurs when Barry discovers his first love flirting in a garden with a man who is everything he is not—mature, wealthy, well born, English and an army officer to boot. The late afternoon sun, soft as the lyric of a love ballad, literally dies along with Barry’s hopes of romance.

Indoors, there are similar revelations, thanks in part to space-age technology. Kubrick found a way to fit an incredibly fast (F 0.7) 50mm. still-camera lens, developed by Zeiss, onto a motion-picture camera. It permitted him to film night interiors using only the light available to inhabitants of the 18th century. Some scenes are illuminated by just a single candle; in others, hundreds gutter in the candelabra and chandeliers of great halls, bathing the screen in a gentle, wonderfully moody orange glow that almost no one now alive has ever experienced.

In the hands of another director, all this embellishment might seem an idle exercise, perhaps even proof of the old movie adage that when a director dies he becomes a cameraman. The first half of Barry Lyndon deliberately violates every rule of sound dramatic composition. Only a few of the scenes end in powerful emotion or conflict, and there is no strong arc to the overall design of the piece. And yet our attention never wanders: such is Kubrick’s gift for lighting and composing a scene, such is the strength of his desire to prove that movies “haven’t scratched the surface of how to tell stories in their own terms.”

The thought is not new. Everyone who has worked in or thought seriously about the cinema knows that the angle of a shot or the rhythm of a scene’s editing can impart information more economically than a long stretch of dialogue. What is novel is that Kubrick has acted so firmly on the basis of that nearly conventional wisdom in the film’s first half — the half that must catch and hold the attention of a mass audience (The Towering Inferno crowd) if his picture is to succeed commercially.

It is a big risk, an act of the highest artistic confidence. Reassurance comes in the strong melodrama of the film’s second half. From the moment Marisa Berenson, playing Lady Lyndon, appears and Barry’s suit for her hand succeeds, the film, without seeming to change its style or gently enfolding pace, gathers tremendous dramatic force of a quite conventional sort. Barry’s loveless use of her to further his ambitions has a raw, shocking edge. His conflict with her son by her first marriage, culminating in what is surely the most gripping duel ever filmed, is full of angry uncontrolled passion. Barry’s innocent infatuation with his own child, “the hope of his family, the pride of his manhood,” has a touching, redeeming warmth to it. His downfall, much more dramatically rendered by Kubrick than by Thackeray, has a tragic starkness and a moral correctness. In short, Kubrick has accomplished what amounts to a minor miracle — an uncompromised artistic vision that also puts all of Warner Bros, money “on the screen,” as Kubrick says, borrowing an old trade term. He feels he has done right by himself and “done right by the people who gave me the money,” presenting them with the best possible chance to make it back with a profit on their investment.

Kubrick turned to Barry Lyndon after a projected biography of Napoleon proved too complex and expensive even for him. He reread the novel several times, “looking for traps, making sure it was do-able.” With typically elaborate caution, he got Warners’ backing on the basis of an outline in which names, places and dates were changed so no one could filch from him a story in the public domain. He then settled down to work on script and research. The latter may be, for him, the more important undertaking. “Stanley is voracious for information. He wants glorious choice,” says his associate producer, Bernard Williams. Adds Costume Designer Milena Canonero: “He wants to see everything. He wants at his fingertips the knowledge, the feeling of the period.”

Kubrick is a self-taught man with an autodidact’s passion for facts and the process of gathering them. Son of a Bronx physician, he was an indifferent high school student. He experimented endlessly with cameras and at 17 was hired by Look as a staff photographer. He learned something about people and a lot about photography, traveling the country shooting pictures for 4 years. At 21, he made his first short subject, three years later his first fictional feature — very low budget. He also audited Columbia University courses conducted by the likes of Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, and became a tireless reader with catholic tastes. “I can become interested in anything,” he says. “Delving into a subject, discovering facts and details—I find that easy and pleasurable.”

It is also essential to his work. For one thing, he finds it impossible to invent an entirely original story, something drawn out of his own experience or fantasy life. Indeed, the creation of fiction awes him. “It is one of the most phenomenal human achievements,” he says. “And I have never done it.” Instead, he must do “detective work — find out about the things about which I have no direct experience.” These, of course, offer metaphors in which to cloak such observations — they are never direct messages — that he cares to share with the world.

Research aids him in another way. Movie sets — even the cool, orderly ones Kubrick is famous for running — seethe with logistical, technical and emotional problems. As Kubrick mildly puts it, “The atmosphere is inimical to making subtle aesthetic decisions.” He is unable to determine how to shoot a scene until he sees a set fully dressed and lit. This is a moment of maximum risk. Says Ryan O’Neal, who plays Barry: “The toughest part of Stanley’s day was finding the right first shot. Once he did that, other shots fell into place. But he agonized over that first one.”

It is precisely then that Kubrick’s memory bank, well stocked with odd details, comes into play. “Once, when he was really stymied, he began to search through a book of 18th century art reproductions,” recalls O’Neal.

“He found a painting — I don’t remember which one — and posed Marissa and me exactly as if we were in that painting.”

Most of his performers seem to worship Kubrick. One reason is that he is always willing to give their suggestions a trial run Or two. He is also Intelligent about not overdirecting them. “Stanley is a great believer in the man,” says Murray Melvin, who is superb in the role of a snaky spiritual adviser to Lady Lyndon. “You have to do it.” Adds Patrick Magee, who plays a gambler: “The catchwords on the set are ‘Do it faster, do it slower, do it again.’ Mostly, ‘Do it again.'”

Melvin did one scene 50 times. “I knew he had seen something I had done. But because he was a good director, he wouldn’t tell me what it was. Because if someone tells you you’ve done a good bit, then you know it and put it in parentheses and kill it. The better actor you were, the more he drew out of you.”

There is no sadism in Kubrick’s insistence on huge numbers of retakes. He did not press Berenson or the children in his cast, only the established professionals he knew could stand up under his search for the best they had to offer. “Actors who have worked a lot in movies,” Kubrick says mildly, “don’t really get a sense of intense excitement into their performances until there is film running through the camera.” Moreover, the “beady eye” that several insist was cast on them as they worked is merely a sign of the mesmerizing concentration he brings to his work.

Originally Kubrick, who likes to sleep in his own bed and likes even more to save the money it costs to house and feed a crew on location, had hoped to shoot the entire picture within a 90-minute range of home. He dispatched photographers to all the great houses within that circle, hoping to find the look he wanted. Impossible. He then decided to shoot in Ireland, where the early sections of the book are set anyway. After a couple of months there, however, the I.R.A. — or someone using its name — made telephone threats to the production. Kubrick decamped for rural England, where he used rooms in at least four different stately homes, artfully cut together to give Hackton Castle, Lady Lyndon’s digs, spaciousness and richness. At Corsham Court, he was told that if he did not kill his lights within 30 minutes, irreparable harm would be done to the priceless paintings in the room where he was shooting. Similar incidents sent the budget soaring, giving an extra twist to the pressures Kubrick felt. Nerves produced a rash on his hands that did not disappear until the film was wrapped, and though he had quit smoking, he started cadging cigarettes.

Still, things could have been worse. Warner’s production chief, John Calley, was always tolerant. “It would make no sense to tell Kubrick, ‘O.K., fella, you’ve got one more week to finish the thing,'” he says. “What you would get then is a mediocre film that cost say, $8 million, instead of a masterpiece that cost $11 million. When somebody is spending a lot of your money, you are wise to give him time to do the job right.”

Calley admits he has no idea whether masterpieces are going to sell this season. “The business is, at best, a crap shoot. The fact that Stanley thinks the picture will gross in nine figures is very reassuring. He is never far wrong about anything.” If Kubrick is right, he will be rich. By the terms of his deal with Warner, he receives 40% of Barry Lyndon‘s profits. Only one picture in history — Jaws — has made “nine figures”; it passed the $100 million mark last week.

As for Kubrick, he is still working 18 hours a day, overseeing the final fine tuning of the sound track while keeping one compulsively attentive eye on the orchestration of the publicity buildup. It is something he feels he must do, just as he personally checked the first 17 prints of A Clockwork Orange before they went out to the theaters. “There is such a total sense of demoralization if you say you don’t care. From start to finish on a film, the only limitations I observe are those imposed on me by the amount of money I have to spend and the amount of sleep I need. You either care or you don’t, and I simply don’t know where to draw the line between those two points.”

He does not believe a single flop will cost him his ability to ere, act independently, though he may occasionally think of a line in The Killing, his first major studio release in 1956. A thief muses that people romanticize gangsters and artists, but they are also eager to see them brought low.

Much more often, however, Stanley Kubrick is armored in the serene belief that whatever judgment the public passes on his new movie when it opens next week, he has fulfilled the director’s basic ideal, which is to shoot “economically and with as much beauty and gracefulness as possible.” Beyond that, he adds, “All you can do is either pose questions or make truthful observations about human behavior. The only morality is not to be dishonest.” Barry Lyndon fulfills that ideal as well.

Time,

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