The critics never quite knew what to make of Stanley Kubrick. Even his greatest pictures met with wildly mixed reviews when they premiered and were only very gradually accepted into the pantheon of greats. What was it about his work that divided opinions so sharply?
His films could be (and usually were) horribly violent, but they denied viewers that tingle of sick pleasure that a good movie bloodbath can arouse in your reptile brain. Kubrick's violence left you uncomfortably numb, the way you feel when you're dicing sirloin for supper and you accidentally slice off your fingertip, that endless instant before you've quite realized it's time to grab a bucket of ice and race to the emergency room. There were occasional chuckles amid the violence in Kubrick's films ("Heeeere's Johnny!"), but that tinge of gallows humor just made the proceedings all the more horrifying.
If you've ever actually committed an act of violence, bashed some jerk across the chops or thumped them hard in the balls, or, God forbid, done worse, you probably remember that moment when an eerie calm overtook you, when your anger suddenly crested, the world went white, and you were alone in the universe with the horror of what you had done. Kubrick's violence is all about such moments; it saturates his films, setting them a world apart from the jolly bloodshed of a Tarantino or even a Scorsese.
Kubrick was accused over and over again of being cold, overanalytical, inhuman. But really he was among the most human of filmmakers, even if his vision of humanity was not the face we would care to see in the mirror. Kubrick peeled away our species' pretenses toward civilization with the unblinking fascination of a vivisectionist. In the end, we were left alive, but we limped away from his chamber of horrors with the distinct feeling that we weren't stitched up quite right.
In Kubrick's two greatest pictures, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, he leapt into what was then the distant future, the better to contrast the sometimes unwholesome appetites of his hairless apes against the brightly lit, airless habitats they'd constructed for themselves. Kubrick imagined these alternate realities so completely that after you walk away from his sci-fi films, the reality of the new millennium can feel like an abstraction by comparison.
For Barry Lyndon, Kubrick tried something deceptively novel; plunging us back to Thackeray's era of whale-bone corsets, men in wigs and deathbeds lit by candlelight. This age of pomp and foppery superficially could not be more removed from the cool hardware of Kubrick's sci-fi pictures, but if the scenery has changed, Kubrick's aim hasn't. Whether we're in Kubrick's exotic future or the equally exotic past, in the end, it's just another pretty playground for man to fuck up in. Apes we were when we first took up arms against our furry brethren; apes we were when we staggered upright, put on fancy pants and stabbed our brethren in the back with gilded daggers. And apes shall we be as we head for Jupiter and beyond.
Barry Lyndon is perhaps the most underrated of Kubrick's films. While there are moments of genuine empathy in Kubrick's other pictures (in 2001, that empathy came as a computer sank into senile oblivion, but empathy it was), Barry Lyndon is the one picture where Kubrick seems to truly feel for his protagonist. Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is no saint, but then again, he's no Malcolm McDowell, either. As the decades roll by, Barry makes his plans and decisions, many but not all of them bad, while fate makes merry with his life. There is a jewel-like sparkle to the proceedings, but these are hardly the lifeless historical dioramas of a Merchant-Ivory picture. After all, it wouldn't be a Kubrick picture if a lot of unforgettably awful things didn't happen.
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Ryan O'Neal acquits himself startlingly well in the lead; a very 1970s pretty boy who usually seemed like he should have been starring in Prell commercials instead of movies, O'Neal had never before demonstrated the kind of acting chops required to pull off a role like this, and never would again. But for this one brief, shining moment, O'Neal was great, believably taking Barry from fumbly young innocent to dashing rogue to decrepit loser with little to aid him but the occasional wig change.
As his lady fair, Marisa Berenson is . . . well, her beauty here is so otherworldly that her acting skills are rather a moot point. Could she act? Well, could the Mona Lisa act? The woman was a masterpiece in her time, and in Barry Lyndon, she found a showcase worthy of her.
In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick once again rubs our noses in the basic vileness of the human experience, but that vileness was presented with an unexpected sorrow, even a tenderness. Once again, film's great vivisectionist laid out our guts before us, but for once, he did it with tears in his eyes.
Barry Lyndon screens at the Bay Theatre, 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988. Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 7 p.m. $5-$8.