A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.
1975: A SHITHEEL’S PROGRESS
Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
For about 25 years, Lyndon’s been the Kubrick movie that I was gonna check out some day. The double-barreled impetus of my needing a 1975 movie that wasn’t Jaws* and the death of Ryan O’Neal meant that now was finally the time. So last night I sat down and fired it up. And: holy shit was that fun!
*the original plan was to use Jaws as a vehicle to talk about the business of movies, the modern blockbuster era, and the weird way that these material concerns can get left out of talking about movies, but you know what? There’s plenty of that talk out there.
I knew Lyndon was a long period piece starring Ryan O’Neal as a cad making his way through 18th century Europe; that always sounded dreadfully dull and un-Kubrickian. What I didn’t count on was that the movie would be three hours of sharp, ridiculous humor, or that O’Neal—whose screen presence I normally don’t like at all, always expecting something like this—is perfectly cast here as an empty, unlikable shitheel. I absolutely did not expect a movie whose closest thematic relatives were The Talented Mr. Ripley and Parasite.
There’s always a debate raging about if a story needs a likable—or at least relatable—protagonist, and I think from now on Barry Lyndon’s going to be one of my go-to datapoints for the “you don’t” column. The whole movie is watching Barry (it *is* kind of awkward that this is his last name but the combo construction of his eventual title and the fact that “Barry” is a common first name in America come together to make it sound like we’re chummily referring to our pal by his first name; nothing to be done about it) do stupid shit and then eventually get his comeuppance for it. And it’s done with such incredible skill that it’s incredibly satisfying the whole time; it’s the Simpsons Sideshow Bob rake gag stretched out to three hours.
Kubrick seems in general to come down hard on the “you don’t need a likeable/relatable protagonist” side. Aside from Barry Lyndon, 2001, Eyes Wide Shut, and A Clockwork Orange all absolutely lack one, and there’s at least an argument to be made about Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and (less solidly) The Shining.
Speaking of Kubrick: I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about how weirdly he sits in my head. 2001 and Dr. Strangelove are among my very tippity-top tier of movies; they’re both movies that when I watch, I’m enraptured but also kind of conscious of artistic choices that I don’t agree with. But then a day later, those quibbles just evaporate and I’m left with my mind chewing on how much it loves a bunch of elements of the movie. Kubrick seems to have some essential movie-making power to reach around some of the critical-faculties parts of my brain and plug straight into the “THIS RULES” center. I’m not even always sure how he does it; but I guess this is a case where I buy into the “he was playing a more elevated game than most other directors” hype. The Coens sort of do the same thing (although in their case I think I can do a better job of articulating what it is I love), and I guess Lynch does a variant where *he* bypasses the “I need narrative clarity” part of the brain and plugs straight into the visceral-reaction part.
Another detail that I love about this movie: that Lord Bullingdon’s also a shitheel (everyone in this movie’s a shitheel! Even the cute kid who dies tragically is a shitheel!). He’s absolutely morally right, and he’s doing what needs to be done when he works to detach Barry from his family; but he’s still a shitheel and a bit of a coward, and that’s kind of great. It’s not an accident that one of the many great visual pieces in this movie is him as an adult getting spanked.
It seems negligent to be talking about Barry Lyndon and not mention the visuals, but this is pretty well-covered territory; if you’ve seen it, you know exactly why it’s special, and if you haven’t, well, it’s the first thing you’re going to see in any discussion of the movie. There’s nothing else out there that looks remotely like it in terms of lighting and composition. It famously evokes Hogarth paintings and even more famously was shot by candlelight in big chunks, using lenses developed for NASA. Neither of those things matter as such when you’re watching the movie; they’re just elements that feed into your brain accepting gorgeous visuals and thinking “why yes this is certainly a striking scene that I am beholding.”
So yeah, I’m glad that circumstances pushed me to finally watch Barry Lyndon. I don’t know that the movie has much to say about the wider context of 1975, other than that this was the sort of movie that would eventually get crowded out to the margins by the generations of populist blockbusters that came up in the wake of Jaws. On the other hand, two of the buzziest movies of 2023 were Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon, a pair of long auteurist epics ( I guess Ridley Scott’s Napoleon movie is in there, too, sigh) ; but on the other other hand the buzziest movie of the year was a (really good) populist blockbuster about a doll. Movies: they’re a land of contrasts!