Screen Gems Barry Lyn­don

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Stan­ley Kubrick is a maker of mo­ments. Within the movies that have el­e­vated him among the cin­e­matic ti­tans are scenes that have bro­ken free of the film canon and into the fab­ric of 20th-cen­tury cul­ture. You know them all: Ma­jor “King” Kong rid­ing the atomic bomb down to obliv­ion, Alex and his “droog” bud­dies leer­ing at the cam­era in the milk bar, the river of blood cas­cad­ing from the el­e­va­tor in the Over­look Ho­tel, the apes en­coun­ter­ing the mono­lith. A pho­tog­ra­pher turned film­maker with a flair for drama, Kubrick cre­ated scenes that burned them­selves into your imag­i­na­tion, like you had been look­ing into the sun and then closed your eyes. One such scene ex­ists near the end of his 1975 film

Barry Lyn­don — an ini­tial crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial un­der­achiever that has greatly grown in stature in re­cent decades. In the scene, a duel with pis­tols takes place in a barn, which, de­spite the pres­ence of hay and doves, re­sem­bles a church with its high ceil­ings and crosslike shafts of light. The set­ting and sit­u­a­tion al­low for a lot of what Kubrick spe­cial­izes in: coldly sym­met­ri­cal shots, close-ups of ac­tors with emo­tion­less stares, boom­ing sound ef­fects (gun­shots and doves flap­ping their wings), along with edit­ing and pac­ing that — when set to Leonard Rosen­man’s ar­range­ment of the fourth-move­ment Sara­bande of Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del’s Key­board Suite in D mi­nor — is noth­ing short of mu­si­cal. To wit­ness the scene is to in­ter­nal­ize it for years to come.

Barry Lyn­don be­gins with a duel and very nearly ends with one. The long rise and fall of Red­mond Barry (later Barry Lyn­don, played by Ryan O’Neal) comes down to a bul­let find­ing its mark here, a mis­fire there. Barry’s jour­ney is re­flected through many im­ages of long roads that re­cede into the hori­zon. Oc­ca­sion­ally, an es­tab­lish­ing shot con­tains a fork in the road, and Barry picks one or the other. This is not a story about how hu­mans are blown about by the fates, with lit­tle con­trol over the out­come of their lives. This is a moral­ity fable, where ev­ery choice has con­se­quences and there is vir­tu­ally no el­e­ment of chance. Even the out­come of the first duel is fixed.

When Kubrick made Barry Lyn­don, he was com­ing off two science-fic­tion films that ce­mented his sta­tus as a vi­sion­ary film­maker (2001: A Space Odyssey and

A Clock­work Or­ange) and de­cided to look back rather than for­ward. He was struck by the char­ac­ters and set­ting of William Thack­eray’s 1844 pi­caresque novel The Luck of Barry Lyn­don, and set about mak­ing the most ac­cu­rate his­tor­i­cal film he could. “[It] of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to do one of the things that movies can do bet­ter than any other art form,” he told critic Michel Ci­ment in an in­ter­view, “and that is to present his­tor­i­cal sub­ject mat­ter. De­scrip­tion is not one of the things that nov­els do best but it is some­thing that movies do ef­fort­lessly.”

To achieve these as­pi­ra­tions, Kubrick closely fol­lowed his­tor­i­cal paint­ings and even ac­quired ac­tual cos­tumes from the era. One of his pri­mary goals was to film with­out the use of elec­tric lights, in­clud­ing in­te­ri­ors lit only by can­dles, and to that end he fa­mously em­ployed lenses de­vel­oped for NASA for the Apollo mis­sions to the moon, with a mas­sive aper­ture and nar­row field of fo­cus that re­quired ac­tors to move slowly to avoid un­der­ex­po­sure.

For the ex­te­rior shots, Kubrick looked to land­scapes by Jean-An­toine Wat­teau and Thomas Gains­bor­ough. In the prein­dus­trial era, be­fore Im­pres­sion­ism up­turned the vis­ual-arts ap­ple cart, painters such as these ren­dered lush, highly re­al­is­tic flora, with greens and browns blur­ring to­gether and darker shades so rich they al­most seem to lend a three-di­men­sional as­pect to the pic­ture. Kubrick rel­ished his com­po­si­tions so much that he be­gan most scenes in close-up and slowly pulled back to re­veal the full am­bi­tion of his can­vas. The ef­fect is hyp­notic — it is not hyper­bolic to sug­gest that few films are as beau­ti­ful as Barry Lyn­don.

Kubrick told the tale of an Ir­ish rogue who grad­u­ally rises to for­tune with an at­ten­tion to de­tail that sug­gests the di­rec­tor used re­search from his ob­sessed-over but never re­al­ized film about Napoleon Bon­a­parte, and with a fas­ci­na­tion with mil­i­tary for­ma­tions per­haps left over from Spar­ta­cus. O’Neal’s per­for­mance seems drained of feel­ing and in­tro­spec­tion — in some ways, re­call­ing the emo­tion­less scoundrel who is the pro­tag­o­nist of Robert Bres­son’s

Pick­pocket — but his mean-spir­ited am­bi­tion and un­quench­able lust also calls to mind char­ac­ters in mod­ern films such as The Wolf of Wall Street.

Lyn­don is im­pos­si­ble to root for, in part be­cause of his heart­less­ness. As an in­ter­est­ing con­trast, his ri­vals in the du­els that book­end the film are al­most com­i­cally emo­tional — when they speak, their lips move wildly, as if their feel­ings are so ur­gent that it’s a strug­gle to make them come out. In the first duel, we do root for Lyn­don. By the end, we know bet­ter. In be­tween the smoke and gun­fire of those scenes is a long, grand, and ever-cap­ti­vat­ing road. — Robert Ker

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