Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Barry Lyndon

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What can you say about Redmond Barry that hasn’t already been said by Sean Hannity or Larry Flynt? A lot, probably. Stanley Kubric’s formalistic foray into the powdered-wig-and-tights drama meanders along, pleasant and slow and stately. Stan isn’t interested in the wigs, though. Stan likes to look at the steel behind the velvet, the tongue sharp as a sword or blunt as cannon shot, the crushing power of money and privilege, the stabbing strength of man’s inhumanity to man. You know, the usual. The thing that stands out is how ironically pretty Kubric makes everything – every shot has the palette and composition of a renaissance painting.

The story itself is more problematic. We follow the life of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, fights in a duel, gets robbed, joins the army, winds up in another army, finds himself in Prussia, and becomes a gambling aide and enforcer to a one-eyed diplomat and card sharp. And then the plot starts. This is storytelling in the grand old episodic tradition of classical novels (of which Barry Lyndon is one), when authors were paid by the word and ate pigeons raw, without ketchup. Yessir, no introspective navel gazing here - in those days fictional characters went places and did things, a lot.

The pacing is funereal for such a nimble film, and the measured tempo of the ever-present music serves both to underscore that pacing and as the film’s slyest joke on so-called ‘civilization’ – even war is a polite and stately event, even murder has its protocol. A grotesque crime committed in secret is more excusable than the less ugly outburst made in public.

Not all of these episodes hold together cohesively, but the audience can take these scenes and cobble together an effective portrait of Barry as an opportunist and social climber made absolutely unscrupulous in his desire for more and more wealth and rank and privilege (it is not an accident that this story takes its name not from Barry’s given name but the one he assumes through his striving). As we follow Barry from callow youth (in early scenes he comes across like a human golden retriever, but this is Ryan O’Neal, so perhaps I am being redundant) to full blown schemer and golden-haired money-hog, Kubric contrasts his subject to the nobility he so fervently wishes to join.

Kubric’s point is clear – as useless a human being as Redmond Barry may be, these blue-bloods are even worse. At two key scenes – both duels – Barry proves he is the braver and more honorable man, and after each he finds his prospects are diminished in spite of this. Greed is the soul of the human element, Kubric seems to be saying, and ‘civilization’ is no more than the wall that the ‘haves’ built to keep out the ‘have-nots’.

But this is hardly a new lesson, nor is it ultimately a productive one, especially since our sympathies have nowhere to light except, finally, on Redmond, who is sympathetic almost by default. Perhaps humankind has a depressing capacity for duplicity, greed, and arrogance, but one would do well when making this point to allow the audience some better shelter. When Ryan O’Neal represents the best humanity has to offer, we’ve come to a dark place indeed.

Those painterly compositions are masterful, though. They, along with the score, slow and haunting, are what you’ll take away. That and a serious butt-kicking that Barry lays down somewhere past hour two.

Also, for what it's worth, Barry Lyndon has probably the greatest duel scene ever. Check it out [Big Time Spoilers].

ETA: Yeah, I know, this is written much more like a three star review than a four, but this movie just keeps resonating. It's grown in my mind since the initial viewing, hence all the stars up there.

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