Day 335: ‘Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson’ 2018

Day 335:
Thursday 31 May 2018  4.52am
‘Barry, Stanley and Jack’  2018

Barry Lyndon (1975) & The Shining (1980)
Two Stanley Kubrick Films

Top 100 Films Ever Made –
Barry Lyndon is equal #59 with La maman et la putain (1973), Sansho Dayu (1954) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll
Barry Lyndon is equal #19 in the Directors Poll
The Shining is equal #154 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll
The Shining is equal #75 with 16 films in Directors Poll – other films include some irrefutable classics like Battleship Potemkin, The Seventh Seal, M and The General; and debatable ones like, A Clockwork Orange, Salo, Kes, Husbands, The Wild Bunch and Jaws.

Barry Lyndon (1975) was a little disappointing for the third time around – possibly because I so loved it the second time. That’s probably more of a reflection of not coming to the film fresh and having preconceived ideas. The first time I was thirteen-years old and found it mind-numbingly boring;, the second time I was forty-years old and found it a delight – very amusing at times due to its wryly written, and expressed, narration. Going in this time I was remembering how brilliant it was based on my second experience and I expected to be wowed again and I wasn’t. I did enjoy it again and did think it was very good although there were a few things that were strange, like the overuse of slow zoom-ins and outs, and the underuse of actress Marisa Berenson who literally has nothing to do and nothing to say – literally twelve or possible thirteen sentence outsides of emotional utterances. In paranthesis, I should add that it was possibly a deliberate move on Kubrick’s part to have her so quiet – seen but not heard – to underline how far she was marginalized by Barry once he married her and had access to her money.

The narration by Michael Horden, more than any dialogue in the film, expresses what it going on in the story. The dialogue, such as it is, is very matter-of-fact, and nothing of great importance or insight is expressed through conversations (with the exception of some rants by the spoiled and aggrieved Lord Luddingdon). The narration is delivered as if it is matter-of-fact but it is anything but. It has been crafted by a wordsmith within an inch of its life. It is beautifully composed and equally beautiful in its delivery. Compare this with the film I watched two nights ago, La maman et la Putain, where nearly everything is raw, expressed through, mostly – pure emotion – the dialogue or monologues.

Many months ago when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, as part of this project, I followed it with another of Kubrick’s acclaimed films, A Clockwork Orange. So, this time, I did the same thing, immediately putting The Shining into the DVD player and pressing play. The Shining, was brilliant, for what was probably my fourth viewing. It’s a film which benefits from having so few viewings in my life, with around fifteen years between each of them. The first time I saw it was probably on the big screen – at the revival house – the Glebe Valhalla (which is also where I got to see A Clockwork Orange for the first time). What a privilege to see it on the big screen again tonight. Like Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining demands a big screen because it’s obvious in every frame that Kubrick conceived them to be appreciated as events. There would have been no thought in Kubrick’s mind in 1980 that people would own videocassettes, Laser Discs or DVDs of his films, or that Criterion would so lovingly restore and remaster the film. I can’t imagine watching any of these films on television in a 4:3 frame. It’s impact would be so diminished as to remove at least half of the impact of the film.

Yet again, like with 2001: A Space Odyssey, large patches of The Shining go by without spoken words because the power so often is in the images. The Shining is as memorable for its images as 2001: A Space Odyssey is. The blood gushing from the elevator, the blank stares of the two young girls in matching outfits, the boy riding his car around the corridors, the boy being chased around the massive frozen maze by Jack, the slaughtered girls in the hallway, the flashback to the party in the hotel’s dining room, the woman in the bath in room 237 and the frozen image of Jack at the end. It is, without doubt, in my on mind, as great a film as Psycho because it took thriller-slash-horror to a new level. It’s why A Nightmare on Elm Street is so important but it’s not going to turn up on anyone’s Top Ten list unless it is a horror Top Ten list.

The Nightmare series and the Scream series and the advent of super-realistic bloody decapitations render Psycho and The Shining to antiquated museum pieces which no longer scare or intimidate people because it is all done with the suggestion of horrific images, lacking any graphic detail. If I had to choose the greater film out of Psycho and The Shining, they’d be a dead heat. But The Shining broke ground that was even more astonishing than Psycho because it contained the supernatural element. Once you go outside of the actions of a mere human – no matter how disturbed – Psycho – you open up a world of never-ending horror, like the first and last A Nightmare on Elm Street films. The Shining, even moreso than Carrie and The Fury (masterpieces in their own right), takes conceptual/supernatural horror to a new level. Scream, and its spawn, of course, is so brilliant because it is – like Barry Lyndon – satirical and self-referential.

The Shining has more memorable scenes, but, likewise, Barry Lyndon has memorable scenes, which are sometimes of such breathtaking beauty that they stay in the mind long after the film has ended. The army in their redcoats, the army marching towards the French line of soldiers, the great castles and great halls full of paintings, the widescreen beauty of Ireland and England, the duels, the womanising Barry with half naked women in his lap, the extraordinary hairdos of Lady Lyndon, Lady Lyndon in her bath and the climactic duel between Barry and his stepson, Lord Luddingdon. Additionally, if you know that the entire film (according to legend) was made without light bulbs, the interiors filmed with hundreds of candles, or natural light through windows, that makes the look of the film and its achievement even more extraordinary.

I have read over the years how little a sense of humour Kubrick is reported to have; as well as reports by others of how funny he could be. He could also be cruel and harsh and have no idea about how offensive his behaviour was. But then, so are we all, when we’re put under the microscope.

Probably, with the exception of Dr. Strangelove (in the title alone), Barry Lyndon is his most amusing film. It comes across not in any scenes of comic relief (although Arthur O’Sullivan as the highwayman is rather amusing to me, as is the scene where the two male lovers discuss the difficulties of separation that one’s job causes) but in the narration which Kubrick has Michael Horden beautifully intone. It’s withering at times in its condescension and irony, and its dry wit and satire. The narration is the glue that binds the film together and makes it what it is, just as the music for most of 2001 is what binds it into something cohesive.

As an experiment I would love to view Barry Lyndon without the narration and see how it works as a period film without a post-production narration. Maybe it would be like viewing Blade Runner without the post-production narration.

The serial (and the subsequent book) by Thackeray was called The Luck of Barry Lyndon (or The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.). Luck tends to be used differently now than it would have been in the mid-19th century. Luck now tends to mean good luck and if it doesn’t mean good luck, then it’s described as bad luck. In fact, Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is entirely about Barry’s luck, which is sometimes good, and sometimes bad. For most of the film it’s a mixture. But, when he lands Countess Lyndon it’s very, very good, and then when a bullet shatters his leg and severs an artery, it’s not so good, except that it is still a kind of mixed luck, because he does get to walk – or hop – away with 500 guineas a year, guaranteed.

I would love to know which bits of Michael Horden’s narration were written by whom, and whether the intertitles were taken from Thackeray and re-written, or written by Kubrick, or someone else. The final card, not narrated, is very funny because it reduces everything that happened, for better or worse, to a succinct thought on which I’ve put my own spin:

None of it really matters – life itself – because eventually everyone winds up dead.

– Philip Powers, May 2018

‘It was in the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.’

I think this final sentence has been appropriated from the tenor of Ecclesiastes 9 which compares good with bad. Barry Lyndon is all about good and bad, in terms of luck. Sometimes the sun shines upon us and sometimes it doesn’t. If you live in Northern Territory it shines for a lot more of your time on earth than if you live in London.

In the King James Version (although the entire chapter is relevant), these verses (which I’ve condensed) illustrate my point, which is that Barry Lyndon (and his luck – good and bad and mixed) lived his life by accepting everything that happened with hardly a murmur. The thing that upset him the most was losing his leg below the knee. He lived his life without considering the ramifications of his impulsive behaviour.

When it turned out well, he revelled, and when it turned out badly, he bought a pair of crutches. He still allowed the wind to blow him as if he was a leaf or a feather. He still drifted as a straw does with the tide. Lucky or unlucky, once you’re dead, you’re dead. Some of us make our own good luck and some of us are destined to be unhappy despite our best efforts.

Ecclesiastes 9, v1, 2a, 3 and 5-6 are remarkably similar to the tone of the film’s last card before the end credits:

“So I reflected on all this and concluded
that the righteous and the wise
and what they do are in God’s hands,
but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.
All share a common destiny —
the righteous and the wicked,
the good and the bad,
the clean and the unclean…
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun:
The same destiny overtakes all.
The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil
and there is madness in their hearts while they live,
and afterward they join the dead.

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

Barry Lyndon is about our best efforts: following one’s heart, going after the opportunities that present themselves, to live a better, hopefully more comfortable, life than one has before. In spite of robbery and swindles one learns how to cadge from those around you who are even luckier than you might turn out to be. If you can take a portion of their luck for a time, then you’ll make hay while the sun shines – another great Biblical verse, this time from Proverbs 10: 5-7 in The Message:

Proverbs 10: 5-7

“Make hay while the sun shines — that’s smart;
go fishing during harvest — that’s stupid
Blessings accrue on a good and honest life,
but the mouth of the wicked is a dark cave of abuse.
A good and honest life is a blessed memorial;
a wicked life leaves a rotten stench.”.

I’m very curious to know what it is about Barry Lyndon that made Kubrick spend two or three years on this project. I wonder if he even read the book or whether he just skimmed it and pulled out certain passage. What I know about Thackeray is that when I read Vanity Fair at the age of eighteen it was the dullest book I’ve ever had the misfortune to be assigned. My allergic reaction to every chapter in the book made it one of the hardest books I’ve ever started and finished, having, eventually, read every word. There’s a stubbornness in me that reared its ugly head again at this time. Never having found a book or a film too difficult to get through – at that age – it was a matter of honour – a self-contained battle within – to finish it. I ended up reading the last half of the book one or two pages a day. If I could knock off ten pages in a day it was a miracle.