AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
A TRI-CENTURY RAMBLE
by Harlan Kennedy
You’ve seen the book, now read the movie. Like a Michelangelo stone figure trying to wrestle itself into life, Stanley Kubrick’s film BARRY LYNDON is a work of genius hidden in embryo inside William Makepeace Thackeray’s original novel.
THE MEMOIRS OF BARRY LYNDON, ESQ. was the Victorian author’s first full-length fiction, published in 1844. Poorly received, especially in comparison with such later successes as VANITY FAIR, it was a picaresque romance with a surplus of wanderlust. In its sortie through 18th century wars, romances, high society salons and dynastic feudings it galloped through too many subplots, too many digressions, too many stories-within-stories-within-stories.
That the central tale – that of Barry’s rise and fall as a self-made social achiever and advancer - was a witty and poignant morality fable, with a tragic resonance at the close, Kubrick recognised: not only recognised but honoured by hewing the novel clean of superfluities and re-shaping it to fit a three-hour movie of dazzling, pure, ineluctable dramatic logic.
Surely the 19th century muses, those zephyrs that breathed
movement into Thackeray’s imperfect youthful inspiration, would look on and
marvel today? Would recognise that a good film can
sometimes miraculously complete the work of a half-good book? And might offer
a dissertative diapason to
1 (One). In which we consider the nature of truth
Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies. Was there ever an arena of life, since earth first gave suck to human beings, in which more falsehoods were committed than art? How often will the author of a narrative pretend to be other than he is, calling himself ‘I’ though wearing a stranger’s identity, while spinning a yarn which contains the further lies-within-lies of his braggart hero’s rank untruths and candied exaggerations?
Such a romance was Mr Fielding’s JONATHAN WILD. Such too, in slyer fashion, was Dr Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. We could even propose the whimsical variant proffered by the Reverend Sterne in his TRISTRAM SHANDY.
Such certainly is Thackeray’s THE MEMOIRS OF BARRY LYNDON, ESQ., whose chief agent and narrator is an Irish rogue and fortune-hunter, one of the most outrageous scoundrels we have known. Mr Thackeray’s Barry is a man who not only would betray his friends, steal from his wife, abuse his stepchild and injure those people incommodious to his vices and devices – but does so. He is one who may live in a stew of iniquity and indulgence from morn to eve while wishing, each new day or night, to sink deeper in it and to sup further of its content.
Imagine now, after surveying this printed romance, a still further departure from the fons veritae. We mean a motion picture by Mr Stanley Kubrick in which Thackeray’s story, already gambolling in the woods of a many-layered make-believe, is shifted further towards the blue hills of distanced artifice and shimmering fiction. Yet the world of art is so curved that untruths chasing each other from a primal point of veracity can end by re-arriving, after a great journey, at that truth. So with Kubrick’s film: it girdles all the fresh possibilities in telling this story and re-arrives, as if by divine design, at the sacred wellsprings that make it fresh, immediate, meaningful and all-new again.
2 (Two). In which we consider the truth of nature.
Where Thackeray renders the verdict ‘guilty’ on his main character almost from the outset, Kubrick gives us a dream of innocence from which the tumblings of disenchantment are at once steeper and more human. Mr Ryan O’Neal, a comely glass of fashion from the New World, presents the hero as a boy of nature. His Barry is a brothy lad, handsome and fairheaded, whose innocence shines out from our first sight of him fumbling in his beloved’s bosom for a promised ribbon. That this is a different young knight than that presented in the book – not just in moral character but in physical appearance - is instantly clear. “I am very dark and swarthy in complexion and was called by our fellows the ‘Black Englander’” writes Mr Thackeray in Barry’s voice after our hero enlists with the English army.
The film’s Barry has been born, all guileless, from
the Irish landscape, swaddled in antique codes of honour, beauty and
chivalry. His father was killed in a duel, we learn in the first tableau.
(Compare the book’s “Death…seized upon my father at the
This scene enlarges, enrichingly, on a single small sentence in the book: “I had a knot of cherry-coloured ribands, which she had given me out of her breast”. Thunder rumbles outside the pair’s lovenest-baptistry, as it will in the film’s only other ‘love scene’ when Barry finds solace with a Prussian farmwoman. For there is no tender emotion between the two sexes, says Kubrick’s film, that does not carry the potential for un-tender tremors, for those sturdier shakings that can turn boyhood to manhood, girlhood to womanhood.
But nature, for now, is Barry’s kindly wetnurse. To what should our filmic gaze be swept, as we cut from the spectacle of Barry and bosom, but a landscape backgrounded by a hill that might manifestly be called ‘nippled’?: a green and luxuriant mount crowned by a small point, before which a redcoated army dins and drills in manoeuvres and practice marches. To emphasise nature’s dominance in these vistas – and in succeeding spread-quilts of countryside composed like artist’s canvases yet rich in that spacious, succouring fecundity that is the Irish land – is to insist that Mr Kubrick is essaying a different beginning to his tale, as he will limn a different development and denouement. Not for vain scholastick invocation does one cite from Thackeray’s book but to illuminate the differences and newness of Kubrick’s film. The pages of the first, for example, insist on Barry’s outsider nature by making known his nickname of ‘English Redmond’ (and even giving him an excursion to London where he meets Dr Johnson!), while the pictures of the second paint him lovingly into his natal landscape, giving ample exercise the while to O’Neal’s fleetly extemporised Irish accent.
3 (Three) The beauty of Kubrick’s film
The past is a foreign country, quoth the romancer. But did ever a man or woman capture its beauties better than the director of BARRY LYNDON? The countryside in these early tableaux seems at once softened into the mythic and hardened into the immortal: an enduring evanescence. Sentinelled by towering pines a lush lawn slopes to a winding river, the scene clothed in a morning mist so musky we can almost scent it. A rider on a hillside is framed against a mountain scarfed in a vapour-cloud so voluptuous, so gently roiling, so ravishing to the eye that it could come from the palette of Mr Turner himself. Hills and ranges and valleys steeped in a verdant, rain-drunk emerald play scenic host to farmers, to riders, to fleeting carriages, to drilling soldiers, to all of life busy with its oblivious tasks in this vast and godly crucible of nature.
This isn’t the vacant loveliness of the costly costume film but something more, and perhaps ultimately mournful: a world of greenness whose beauty is in its drenched and deep and oft-times sunless amplitude, a countryside that haunts us with its loss before we have lost it.
4 (Four) How Barry loses his world and begins to lose his soul
What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? So says the Good Book. Yet our Barry goes fast to do both. It must interest the reader that the path of his damnation, however, is a forked one, different courses being marked by Thackeray’s book and Kubrick’s film. For the Victorian author Barry is a scoundrel in full fig almost from the opening chapter - albeit thinking to assuage his evildoing by portraying it as youthful hotheadedness blent with material ambitiousness.
Stript of home, family and such poor wealth as he has commanded by the duel with Captain Quin, his love rival, who dies to shame him (and awaits the chance to re-live!), Barry sets off in the world on horse and foot. Our novelist wreaths his hero’s humbling flight in a haughty, hubristic nonchalance. “It was my fate to be a wanderer, and that battle with Quin sent me on my travels at a very early age…. I never slept sounder in my life."
Later still the book’s Barry will become a cruel soldier, pillaging, plundering and burning with the worst. “I can recollect… a farm-house in which some of us entered; and how the old woman and her daughters served us, trembling, to wine; and how we got drunk over the wine, and the house was in a flame presently: and woe betide the wretched fellow afterwards who came home to look for his wife and his children!”
Set beside that the filmic Barry. His elopement from fate begins with a most chastening adversity. When a highwayman lightens him of his purse and horse the camera, in tremor’d empathy as it dollies towards the death-threatening dastard wielding the flintlock, performs its first handheld travelling shot: titrating human panic for first time into the perspective-pullings that Kubrick has elsewhere effected (and will continue to) with the more formal and painterly zoom. When O’Neal’s Barry later becomes a soldier he strips others of their earthly goods, but even here Kubrick presents a hero more redeemable than Thackeray’s. From a burning house that we must adjudge the film’s equivalent to the novel’s blazing farm (though we see no family slain) Barry is seen carrying, nay cradling, a young goat-kid!
A man reduced to nothing must rebuild himself into something. But identity is an elusive quarry and a fickle temptress: such is the artful import of BARRY LYNDON the movie. For reel upon reel its hero trades in false papers, false personae, a gambler with the truth of selfhood. And violence real is bred of violence ethical and existential. As the hero’s course unfolds, the manifold manifestations of that palpable violence swell with a sure and richly metaphored progression from incidents of minor grief, or none, to those of major injury.
The military manoeuvres. The wineglass thrown in the face (Barry insulting Quin). The duel (non-fatal). The robbery at pistol-point. The slugging bout among soldiers. The first gunpowdered skirmishes. Finally and fulminously, war itself, bellied out in full canvas with smoke and blood and terror and pillage and death.
5 (Five). In which Barry hardens a heart too apt to softness.
Mr Ryan O’Neal can weep a good tear. If an actor to keen beside a bedside is sought, look no further. If the world requires a mummer who can milk the tearducts till the clovenfooted kine come home, the former star of the many-handkerchiefed LOVE STORY is its man. And with deft ingenuity Stanley Kubrick hired this lachrymogenic young histrio to portray a hero who determinedly turns off his own tears – when they count against his steelier self-interest – as distinct from Thackeray’s errant knight who can scarcely shed a teardrop to begin with.
For sure, the Barry who writes in first person in this book presents himself as a tenderheart when need demands. And weep he can in extremis, as on meeting the Chevalier du Ballibari - after Barry’s adventures on the field have given place to daring-do at the gaming tables - and finding that this wigged and face-painted old trusspot is his very uncle. The book’s narrator writes: “As I spoke, I burst into tears; I can’t tell why; but I had seen none of my kith or kin for six years.” But the tears of this Barry, we come to know, are as Nilus’ crocodile, while the tears of the filmic Barry are the fons et origo of his humanity, stopped at its bubbling source only by the piling atop of his own impostures, as builder’s detritus will block or dam up a wellspring. Yet even with these obstructions he can weep again. The spring of feeling can force itself once more to the surface, as we later see at his son’s deathbed, in the most affecting painting of human sorrow in the film.
The Redmond Barry of the motion picture is a good heart led astray, by circumstance and himself, while the novel’s Barry is born to vainglory, cruelty and deceit. One has a heart to harden, the other a hardness that only the urge to ingratiate himself, with other characters or with his readers, pretends to conceal a softer centre.
6 (Six) These pictures Kubrick has painted on the eyelids of eternity
Time and human history are blind and uncommunicating. What they convey are merely what we choose them to convey, through art, philosophy, the extrapolations of science or other avenues of mortal speculation and enquiry. What humans do with artworks and theorems and inventions the hero of BARRY LYNDON does with his own life. It is a film about man and woman’s oldest struggle, that to impose a finite, particular identity on the mocking void of the infinite-eternal.
Yet in this odyssey of Barry’s journey, what perspectives vie with other perspectives! What complexities and ironies crowd that struggle! For another agent of the defining impulse is the film’s narrator, to whom Kubrick, unlike Thackeray, has given a voice other than Barry’s. Many a polished apophthegm is uttered by the walnut-and-honey voice of Mr Michael Hordern. Like the painterly tableaux of Kubrick and his cameraman Mr John Alcott, these frame and freeze and symmetrise, seeming to preserve each vital moment in sempiternal amber. (Some of the movie’s saws are its own creation. Others echo the Victorian author’s own words. “The tender passion…gushes instinctively out of a man’s heart,” wrote Thackeray in the words taken up by Hordern; “he loves as a bird sings or a rose blows, from nature.”)
Yet the ironic formalism of the narration and the grande peinture images, with the zoom lens deployed to turn panorama into detail and detail into panorama, set up a system of authorial annotation and behavioural overview only to expose the inadequacies of such supposed omniscience at times of extremity. Propose almost any single moral arc, at any point in the film, and it will be found wanting. For the work’s richness is in its multitude of trajectories, some seeming to contradict others. Many have opined that BARRY LYNDON the motion picture tells how the Augustan Age was undone by collision with the Romantic: how reason fell into a fight with passion and lost. The film’s plot, like the book’s, is carefully poised on a fulcrum between epochs as the 18th century yields to the 19th.
But isn’t passion there from the start – in Barry the boy, the lover, the duellist – only to be conquered by the false refinements, the cold disciplines, the time-buying emotional chastity of disguise and deceit?
Barry sacrifices his youthful spontaneity at the altar of social success. He thinks, no doubt, to win back his deferred happiness, his nature’s true and thoughtless self once – and for this gamer literally - the ‘cards have fallen into place.’ But his schemes imprison his own soul. Like a nation that delivers itself to despotic rule for a remedial span to recover prosperity or eminence, then cannot recover the freedom it has bargained away as a tithe to tyranny, Barry’s temporising masquerades become a mask in perpetuo. He cannot, save in brief and tearing moments, put it asunder. This is the battle his humanity has with his hamartia (his tragic flaw), and the struggle his deeper goodnatured self has with his blighting self-chosen destiny.
7 (Seven) All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely scenery
The reified self sees all else as objects. To a man who makes himself a machine or mechanism for advancement all else insidiously becomes machinery. Kubrick has toyed with such conceivings elsewhere, artfully riddling the ‘human’ and the ‘inhuman’ – or questioning that hierarchy of terms – in films as various as 2001, A MECHANICAL CITRUS FRUIT and COMPLETE METALLIC OVERTUNIC.
In BARRY LYNDON dehumanisation is decorative.
Self-ornamentation begins with the humble colours
of the soldiery, advances to the epaulettes and Pineapple Poll finery of the
officers and administrators, into whose sancta sanctorum our hero is
introduced by Captain Potsdorff (Hardy Kruger), and
climaxes, via the effulgent dandyism of Balibarri,
in the full-mettle sartorial deliriums - that ordnance of an exploding fashionworld - of Lord and Lady Lyndon and their circle. Steepling wigs, bustles to sink ships and enough facial
slap, on men and women alike, to provender the greenrooms of a dozen
For Barry the gateway to high society stands at the end of an avenue that has passed through military service, espionage and games of hazard. To this reprobate progress Kubrick lends a mocking pomp, his visual symmetries becoming statelier by the minute. Before the seedy grandeur of the Minister of Police, his spymaster, enthroned behind a desk the size of Schleswig-Holstein, Barry stands like an auditionee fearful before the very proscenium that he must enter and conquer. And like the frame of a theatre stage, filled with frontdrops that rise one after another to inaugurate the drama, Kubrick offers a sequence of four-square palatial vistas, grand and bombastic, leading up to the meeting with du Balibari. It is a peepshow into the new pomposity that will be our hero’s, as an accredited envoi to the haut monde.
The final formalisation of his dreams and wishes, before Part 2 of the film begins their redemptive unravelment, is pictured in the maze of water gardens in which he first espies Lady Lyndon. Nature has become landscape embroidery. Water flows or stands where man wills. Greenery is coiffed and tonsured to flatter his aesthetic seigneury. Statues freeze human gesture as Augustan high society freezes human response. And the ‘natural’ candlelight that Kubrick the filmmaker boasted as an imprimatur of authenticity casts a light resembling nothing so much as theatrical footlights. A stagy, flickering orange glow, gaudy-mooning the vespertinal faces that surround card tables or swill across ballrooms. Human faces as Halloween masks.
8 (Eight) In which the veil of time is lifted by the fingers of premonition
The time is out of joint: in senses more than one. Monsieur Marcel Proust proposed that the most coveted secret of art was the defiance of time. That a rainbow could join time past to time present if only the artist, that recording angel of possibility, stumbled upon the loose paving stone that – in this French author’s case – concealed the crock of gold. Proust’s stumble, in the volume we know as TIME REGAINED, rhymed itself with an earlier remembrance and obliterated for him in a lightning stroke the years between his present and his past. The synaptic spark of memory fused estranged realities. Sequence became obsolete. Time fell to ashes. All Was Now.
There is another time-gainsaying inspiration in art, no less important. That which looks forward. The mind hates to be the slave of Chronos, and imagination, not least in storytelling, allows it to break its chains. So Thackeray enriched his tale with premonition and Kubrick differently – and more subtly - does likewise.
In the novel the childhood Barry has a bullying older cousin against whom he finally rebels. “I could put up with rough treatment from him; yet, even that sort of treatment I would bear from him no longer.” Later almost the same words fly at him, from the stepson who has become his nemesis, Lord Bullingdon, son to Lady Lyndon by her first marriage. In another of the book’s pre-echoes (not taken up by the film) the full first name of Barry’s boyhood love Nora is Honoria. The first name of Lady Lyndon is – Honoria. Wry double christening!, in the story of a man for whom honour is the first and most enduring casualty of his ambition.
Kubrick eschews what he may consider an over-literal, over-literate premonitory symbolism. For him the tremors in time are more insidiously disruptive, more various. He can decouple action and commentary so that narrator Hordern recites an obituary over Sir Charles Lyndon even as that good knight chokes and splutters from his terminating heart attack. (Mandarin distanciation Augustan-style versus the brute reality of suffering and death!) And in throwaway visual asides Kubrick will one moment wryly back-refer to an earlier image by driving the Lyndons’ carriage through a landscape contoured like a female body - just like the nipple-crowned hill near the film’s beginning; in another moment, at the very wedding of hero and new bride, seed Barry’s future doom in the brief cut to child Bullingdon’s face at the exact moment that the Reverend Runt, solemnising the nuptial with his prayer book, intones the words “fear of God….”
Time’s slippages prepare the characters for their falls. Time’s seizures, by complement and contrast, doom them to self-repetition. The most cunning remix of time comes with the music. Kubrick plays the same classical pieces over and over until our minds and ears ache. It is as if time cannot move; as if we are in a stately, eternal dance of the present, prettied with culture and art and fashion, where even the beauties of Schubert and Vivaldi are part of the timeless frippery of the damned, of the endless choreography of their ritualised purgatory.
9 (Nine) In which the blade falls on the guilty and innocent alike
Perpetuum mobile; perpetuum immobile. Characters trapped in their settings also become human paintings. See! Lady Lyndon, nude and languorous in a bath, is turning into a full-length Ingres figure study. See! The duel-wounded Barry slung romantically the length of a bed is dreaming in some feverish forevision of ‘The Death of Chatterton.’
Autonomy and individual self-determination are the ideals we seek. In waking life can we find and hold them? Or are they lost forever when we have played our deck of cards and think we have won and put aside the pack? Will anything – other than tragedy – restore our humanity to us, untie our bonds for the last few paces in which we can walk the path that leads from life to death?
Ah poor little
The tragedies begin. The very frozen tableaux which gave a make-believe
of unity and solidity to Barry’s adoptive world thaw and disintegrate. First,
with his own and his hero’s mocking fist,
Bullingdon recites his screed of accusation before his mother, word for virtual word from the book, though there it was couched as a letter. “Madam, I have borne as long as mortal could endure the ill-treatment of the insolent Irish upstart whom you have taken to your bed. It is not only the lowness of his birth and the general brutality of his manners which disgust me, and must make me hate him so long as I bear the name of Lyndon…!”
Decorum at a stroke is unstrung. Social form falls to rout; spontaneity and insensate anger giddy the camera as Barry and Bullingdon fall to the floor, fighting with the dignity of footballers scrumming in mud.
The delicate clockwork of a family’s social timekeeping and moral temporising – the smiling face it has presented to the world in concealment of quarrels, distempers, infidelities, vices – becomes a chaos of broken springs. ‘Time’ is re-ordered once again: into a last movement of directed dismay, towards misfortune and undoing, towards those rendezvous with a diviner justice that are already intimated by narrator Hordern. Barry, he says with a dour throb of clairvoyance, soon after that hero’s moment of social undoing, will end his days “poor, lonely and childless.”
So it comes. The horrors strike
like the tollings of a bell or the falls of a guillotine
blade. (Is it a dynastic pantomiming of the parricidal overthrows of the
French Revolution, a near-contemporary event that was surely borne in mind by
Thackeray, perhaps by Kubrick?) Little
Kubrick invents this episode entire. It is the film’s greatest inspiration. Thackeray does no more than dispatch Bullingdon to fight in America (in another battle to throw off a paternal yoke), where he goes absent presumed slain, before a belated return allows him to defend his freshly insulted mother by battering Barry bodily in Bath. “Lord Bullingdon assaulted his stepfather…and administered to him a tremendous castigation in the Pump-room”.
The bathos of this near-slapstick coda to Bullingdon’s story is Thackeray’s unfinest hour. How contrasting is the movie’s duel! It takes place in a barn resembling a disused church, where shafts of mote-diffused light flood from tall windows and doves coo and flutter in an eerie, hypnotising chorus of babbled benediction. A little pageant of Hell is set in an abandoned outpost of Heaven, the order of attractions suitably horripilating. A miscued pistol shot; one combatant turning away to vomit his fear; that combatant’s petrified wait for the return of fire; his opponent’s bullet generously wasted in earth; another wait; a cry of pain; an ill-aimed wound that will never heal….
10 (Ten) In which Barry takes his leave
“Mr Barry Lyndon’s personal narrative finishes here, for the hand of death interrupted the ingenious author soon after the period at which the Memoir was compiled, after he had lived nineteen years an inmate of the Fleet Prison.”
Thackeray closes the prison door, then the door of life, on his hero. Kubrick allows him to escape, freeze-framed as he steps into a carriage to take him to a new life that will be no more prosperous – and may be considerably less - than the old. He has lost half a leg and all of an estate. Its debts and liens are audited in a cavalcade of drolly solemn scenes as quills scratch at quintillions of paper sheets. (How many birds stopped fluttering to supply the Lyndons and their accountants?)
He has forfeited a family life that he had entered in bad faith but found therein, by the accidents of fatherhood, some small goodness to live by, some faith that love exists as well as self-love.
The miracle of the film BARRY LYNDON is that it presents a man fallen from grace in whom goodness is never lost to our sight. Redemption can come piecemeal as well as wholesale, suggests Kubrick, and only parts of Barry, we are sure, have been improved by adversity at the story’s end.
But art, even tragic art, doesn’t pretend to heal humanity. It is theatre, not operating theatre. It can but spotlight a vice here, a virtue there, amid the rich vexation of vicissitudes that is life. It can but amplify and illuminate our insight into what makes human beings the greatest study for human beings: a race the most complex, cussed, contradictory and fascinating that has walked this planet, or in all likelihood any other.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.