Talking Movies

March 21, 2015

JDIFF 2015: Barry Lyndon 40

If there’s a better way to see Barry Lyndon for the first time than on Screen 1 of the Savoy with Ryan O’Neal and Jan Harlan being interviewed afterwards by Lenny Abrahamson then I’d like to hear it.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

Whatever I knew about Barry Lyndon from reading a biography of Stanley Kubrick over a decade ago had long since fallen out of my head, so it was a treat to be able to approach the 1975 classic not having a clue what to expect. The first thing I didn’t expect was an intermission. The second thing I didn’t expect was that the first part of the movie would be quite so funny; I nearly fell out of my chair when I realised that Leonard Rossiter was playing an important role. Yes, Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove, but thereafter the black comedy in his films always seemed to me to be muted by his increasing desire to showcase an emotional detachment from the material. But Barry Lyndon is a hoot. The duelling in the first part doesn’t get as nonsensical as that in another 1975 period piece, Woody Allen’s Love & Death, but it’s started down that road with Rossiter’s craven attempts to buy his way out of gaining ‘satisfaction’. I also hadn’t expected the film to be quite so picaresque. Little wonder that Bret Easton Ellis repeatedly holds up 1975 as a golden year for Hollywood compared to the current predictable to the page number beat by beat method of screenwriting, as Kubrick faithfully reproduces Thackeray’s approach of depicting a series of misadventures that romp across countries and introduce new characters and throw away old characters, before sometimes bringing them back, whenever Thackeray damn well feels like it. Here is the early ramshackle Pickwickian Dickens’ approach to plotting, rather than the High Victorian rigour and schemae.

I was less enamoured, however, with the second part. Jan Harlan made the observation that Barry Lyndon should not be considered an oddity in Kubrick’s ouevre, but a vital entry in a continuing exploration of the frailty of the individual in the face of the pressures of a corrupt society. In this sense he said all of Kubrick’s films were political message movies. Barry Lyndon, he said, is a good man, a young boy in love, manipulated by his cousins, uncle, friends, and then brutalised by English and Prussian military, until it is inevitable that he becomes a conscienceless rake. But even then he is capable of acts of goodness, which cause him the two most crippling misfortunes in his life. All of which is true, and yet I couldn’t help feel that the second part was Thackeray fulfilling a Victorian desire to punish the wicked, and, especially in the detestable Lord Bullingdon, to assert the privileges of aristocracy over the nouveau riche. Given how Dan Gilroy ended Nightcrawler you feel that if (somehow) Barry Lyndon was made in 2015, the movie would end roughly 10 minutes into its second part. Indeed, given how Kubrick ended A Clockwork Orange in 1971, with the rake triumphant, it’s odd to see him follow a Victorian prescription to moralise…

Lenny Abrahamson handed over questions to the audience at a surprisingly early stage, with regrettably few questions being directed to the erudite Harlan. Harlan interestingly explained that Irish actors were plucked from the theatre because Kubrick, who’s not usually positioned in that world rather than photography and cinema, knew that the Abbey and Gate would provide interesting character actors.O’Neal, meanwhile, got the bulk of the questions, and gave every indication that his recurring role as Brennan’s roguish father Max in Bones is the closest a dramatic persona has got to approximating his own personality. The experience of playing Barry Lyndon changed his life, but he couldn’t say how. Marisa Berenson has very few lines, because women weren’t allowed to talk much back then. The film looks like paintings from the 18th century, because Kubrick would compose shots to resemble paintings; in one case forcing O’Neal to hold a tea-cup in his right hand because it matched the painting – O’Neal being left-handed this was extremely awkward to pull off…

But when he stopped giving comic and/or comically short answers he elaborated with two anecdotes. For six months he trained at fencing, including at nights with the University of Kansas at Lawrence coach while working on Paper Moon. When he arrived to meet Kubrick he was so cocksure of his ability that he refused to wear a mask, “Barry Lyndon wouldn’t wear a fencing mask”, only to be forced to don one by the British Olympic fencer who was to teach him and refused to fence without one. Harrumphing at this nonsense O’Neal donned the mask, struck his stance, and was disarmed within two seconds. So much for impressing Kubrick with his great swordsmanship. O’Neal also responded to a question about how he cried during a death scene by saying he thought of dead puppies, and tried like hell to ignore the noise of chattering monkeys floating in from outside. For they were filming at Longleat with its animal park. Eventually Kubrick had enough of the audio recording being ruined by simian gibbering and asked someone to sort it out. The ingenious solution? Throw the monkeys more bananas than they’d ever seen in their lives, and this would keep them too occupied to interrupt the scene with their cackling. The next day Kubrick and O’Neal got ready to go again. The tears flowed, the raw emotions were captured, and then an “Oh! Ohhhhh. Uggggh. Uuuuhhhh” floated into the air. The monkeys had eaten too many bananas and were now volubly gassy, stuffed, and digesting…

And yet, out of such chaos, Kubrick’s insane repetitious takes with no direction, and lighting and relighting scenes for hours with actors not stand-ins, came a film of some beauty and much wit.

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