Saturday, October 16, 2010
They Are All Equal Now: Kubrick's Barry Lyndon
This is a revised and much-shortened version of my captone essay from several years ago. It assumes that the reader has seen Barry Lyndon, and may be somewhat impenetrable if they haven't.
The major recurring theme in the work of Stanley Kubrick is the conflict between the ambitions of man and the laws of the natural world. Kubrick's protagonists tend to put their faith in some sort of humanly constructed system which they believe will give their lives concreteness and infinitude in the chaotic uncertainty of the natural world - a world in which the role of humanity is unclear. The thieves in The Killing (1956) spend months planning the "perfect robbery" only to see their scheme crumble when a combination of personality conflicts and sheer chance prevents any of them from winding up with the money. A military contigency plan, designed to protect the United States in a time of crisis, ultimately triggers the apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove (1964). A fool-proof computer system that has never made an error develops a mind (and emotions) of its own and endangers the lives of the space shuttle passengers whom it was built to protect in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In these cases and others, Kubrick explores the dangers inherent in basing one's actions and beliefs around products of the faulty human intellect. Barry Lyndon (1975) is Kubrick's most dramatically profound exploration of this theme, because human civilization itself is the flawed social system which its characters tragically put their faith in.
In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick takes his career-long fascination with the binary opposition of civility and barbarism to its logical extreme by depicting one Irish peasant's attempt to infiiltrate the ultra-formalized world of eighteenth-century English nobility. Formally, the film puts forth a highly mannered surface that instantly brings to mind the trappings of the more recent Merchant-Ivory school of tasteful, "high art" productions: rich camerawork that catches every detail of elaborate scenery, fancy costumes that seem to have been plucked directly from the past, new arrangements of famous chamber music pieces, a narrator who would not sound out of place reading William Makepeace Thackeray's novel (upon which the film is loosely based) on a book-on-tape. These common aspects of costume dramas typically exist to give the "refined" viewer a false sense of his own classiness by allowing him to escape into a world of powdered wigs and corsets. Barry Lyndon sets itself apart by insisting on its formal civility so aggressively that the paraphernalia of high society is made to seem strange and grotesque. The film is so overpoweringly formalized that formality in and of itself begins to seem like a denial of the complexity of the world, which refuses to conform to human values of good taste. As the illusion that prosperity and taste puts one above the laws of the physical world becomes increasingly harder for Barry to maintain, the film suggests that civility itself can be a form of barbarism. Barry finds out too late that it is impossible to use the tools of a man-made society to escape from the fateful march of time that ultimately renders all men equal.
The film's commentary on history could be summed up thus: those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and those who learn only from the values of the present will have no future. The worst fate is to be locked into a scope of reference that only accounts for the temporary values of a specific society and does not account for the unstoppable forward motion of time, and all of the social and natural changes that that forward motion entails. (In this respect, Barry Lyndon is not dissimilar in theme to AMC's Mad Men).
While Barry Lyndon's sheer length (185 minutes) and prominent use of lenghty scenes may make it appear to be long and slow by conventional narrative film standards, the fact is that the film covers nearly three decades (roughly 1760-1789), and makes some rather dramatic leaps in time from scene to scene. Even as the narrative becomes more staid in the film's second half, rapid chronological shifts govern the lives of the characters. But of course the characters do not have the luxury of historical perspective, and there is no indication that they have any knowledge of past or foreign social values to which they could compare their own. By giving his characters a limited frame of reference, Kubrick proposes that they are tragically unconscious of the artificiality of success in a society whose conventions do not account for the complexities of a world which keeps moving forward, without concern for preserving the mores and beliefs of individual societies.
Kubrick's most compelling method of exploring Barry Lyndon's themes comes through the film's cinematogrpahy. Where traditional films tend to begin their scenes with establishing shots that give a general impression of the environment that the scenes take place in, Barry Lyndon's scenes tend to "begin with a small fragment of mise-en-scene from which the camera zooms back to reveal the whole scene through a long shot" (Luis M. Garcia Mainar, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick [Camden House, 2000], p. 163). These reverse zoom shots, which are used frequently throughout the film, function to present the viewer first with a view of the specific narrative worlds of the characters (the close shot), and then to ultimately show that the characters and their concerns take up a miniscule part of a much wider frame (the long shot). This visual shift from particularity to generality, often beginning with the characters in close-up and ending with them in long shot, suggests at first that the characters and their narratives are of the utmost importance, and then reminds the viewer that the characters' affairs are merely small parts of the bigger picture.
By continually recontextualizing the narrative events of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick asks viewers to question the importance of these events in the grand scheme of things. The film manages to account for the larger story of English society, even as it follows its titular character through a relatively standard narrative trajectory. Kubrick's narrative proceeds by playing the story of Redmond Barry (the close ups) off of the story of the world at large (the long shots).
In part one ("By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon"), the film's dramatic leaps in time are highlighted by an episodic narrative that finds the protagonist in a variety of settings, dealing with a number of small conflicts. In about 100 minutes, the film explains Redmond Barry's family background; details the struggle for Nora Brady's hand; finds Redmond in trouble with a highwayman on the road to Dublin; depicts his experiences in the Seven Years' War (in both the English and Prussian armies!); includes an account of his successful gambling collaboration with the Chevalier; and introduces the major players of part two.
The sheer amount of narrative in the film's first half suggests that Redmond is living in a state of constant flux, without the means to control his position in a world that is constantly hurtling him from one dangerous situation to another. Redmond's name and nationality change several times as necessary responses to the danger that surrounds him. Redmond's desire to rise in society could be read as an unconscious attempt to achieve a sort of permanence in a world in which his well-being is constantly threatened. However, it is worth pointing out that this half of the film begins with a poor man (Redmond's father) dying and ends with a very wealthy man (Sir Charles Lyndon) dying, an indication that men of status - whose ranks Redmond is quickly joining at this point in the film - can look forward to the same fate as men who are not remembered in history books.
The title of part two ("Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters which Befell Barry Lyndon") indicates in no uncertain terms that Redmond's newfound status will be short-lived and empty. Redmond's new comfort is reflected in the stable mise-en-scene of his surroundings, but increasingly great leaps in time in the film's narrative subtly reinforce the fact that the world is moving on outside of the tomb-like world of Castle Hackton (a space that is equivalent to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining  or the mansion where the orgy takes place in Eyes Wide Shut ).
Barry finally achieves a measure of free will and moral perspective late in the film, when he refuses to fire on his son (and most vocal adversary) Lord Bullingdon during a dual. But this newfound ethical dimension is not enough to save Barry from the bullet that Bullingdon clumsily fires into Barry's leg. Barry has reached a level of status that his father could only dream of, yet, like his father he still winds up with a bullet in his body. Redmond Barry's moral redemption has come too late. All of the characters in Castle Hackton seem to have devoted their lives to posing for their portrait, but Barry is the only one who is frozen in time (in the film's only freeze frame). Yet, his face does not even appear in this freeze frame portrait, and his body is gracelessly deformed from the shooting. Barry Lyndon is the story of a man who ran out of the time needed to reconcile his existence with the operations of the natural world.
But Barry Lyndon is not merely the story of its titular character. The film does not end with the freeze frame of a disgraced Barry leaving the castle, but instead follows said shot with a dialogue-free scene in which Lady Lyndon and her male handlers sign bank notes. The papers they sign are dated to 1789, an allusion to the impending French Revolution and the dawn of a new era in the civilized world. The final zoom out depicting Lady Lyndon and her handlers enveloped by the paintings and furniture of their society is a vision of the last moments before barbaric physical violence would enter the civilized estates of Europe and introduce their upper-class inhabitants to the grim hand of fate that they had inadvertantly fooled themselves and each other into ignoring. The elegant man-made structures of this society will outlive its people - a point made more visceral by the extra-textual knowledge that much of the film was shot in genuine eighteenth-century castles.
Even after this final shot, Barry Lyndon makes time for its final and most radical temporal leap with the eloquent brutality of its epilogue, in which the phrase "good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now" brings the movie from 1789 to the present day. The story of the film is turned into a grim but poignant allegory for the human inability, or unwillingness, to see the actions of the present in the larger context of history. Barry Lyndon is the story of humanity's limited perspective, which allows us to do irreparable damage to ourselves and others simply by following the dictates of our society.