January 11, 1976
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love 'Barry
By JOHN HOFSESS
hile watching Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," I
realized a story about a visitor to an art exhibit who, having studied
each canvas with increasing perplexity, came up to the artist who
painted the pictures and said, "I like your work--but I'm not sure
exactly what it is you're trying to say." The artist replied, "If I
could say it, I wouldn't have bothered painting it."
The same might be said of "Barry Lyndon": there isn't much for a
verbally-oriented person to chew on. There's no conceptual or
discursive aspect, no kernel of pop sociology or philosophical
nutmeat. It isn't at all like "Nashville" or "Last Tango in Paris,"
where a knowing reviewer could write the kind of richly allusive
in-depth analysis that critics have long done for novels. Instead,
"Barry Lyndon" throws down the gauntlet to those film critics who are
really literary or drama critics in disguise and tests their ability
to appreciate qualities of form, composition, color, mood, music,
editing rhythms-- among other cinematic qualities that generally do
not greatly interest them. Words are a film critic's primary tools and
when a movie doesn't lend itself to verbal translation-- discussions
about character, ideas, values, plot development, and so on--many
critics are inclined to dismiss it as unimportant or as a failure.
Being a "word-man" myself, I well understood the discontent of
certain reviewers with the film's lack of witty or memorable dialogue,
its lack of provocative ideas, its lack of character development and
an emotionally engaging central performance.
Film critics are supposed to write with the certitude of
exclamation marks; unlike philosophers, they cannot build a reputation
based on doubt. Yet, as my deadline drew near, I found myself turning
into a question mark. How much easier my task would be, I reflected,
if "Barry Lyndon" were like Kubrick's early films. They were graced by
fine performances--one recalls Adolphe Menjou and Kirk Douglas in
"Paths of Glory," James Mason in "Lolita" and, with special affection,
Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove"--and
occasionally they even produced quotable lines, like the ones in
"Strangelove" about "preverts." They had definite subjects and were
easy to talk about. In those days, one went to his films and came home
with a message.
Beginning with "2001," however, as Kubrick began pushing
inspiration and obsession to their outer limits, insisting on the
primacy of a film experience that was essentially ambiguous and hard
to explicate, one went to a Kubrick film and came home floundering.
Like it or not, your mind had been grazed by something original.
Not everyone liked it. When "2001" opened in 1968, it was greeted
with derisive snorts from practically every major critic except
Penelope Gilliatt. "A monumentally unimaginative movie," wrote Pauline
Kael. "A major disappointment," said Stanley Kauffmann. "Incredibly
boring," commented Renata Adler. "A regrettable failure," wrote John
Simon, shrugging it off as "a shaggy God's story." "A disaster," said
Bearing in mind the cold critical reception accorded "2001," I once
asked Kubrick-- shortly before the London opening of "A Clockwork
Orange"--if he had ever learned anything about his work from reading
film criticism. His response was a fast, firm "No."
"To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity," he said.
"Yet very few critics ever see a film twice or write about films from
a leisurely, thoughtful perspective. The reviews that distinguish most
critics, unfortunately, are those slambang pans which are easy to
write and fun to write and absolutely useless. There's not much in a
critic showing off how clever he is at writing silly, supercilious
gags about something he hates."
During a recent visit to England, I talked with Kubrick again at
his home in Borehamwood, outside London. This time, of course, our
main topic of discussion was "Barry Lyndon," and I had even arrived
armed with an annotated edition of "The Luck of Barry Lyndon."
Obviously, I was much better prepared to talk book than film.
"Quick!" Kubrick said to one of his assistants. "Hand me that Times
article on 'Barry Lyndon,' so I can discuss Thackeray." The piece in
question was a lengthy essay in the London Sunday Times describing in
detail Thackeray's struggle to write the novel against a background of
gambling debts and marital unhappiness. Kubrick's irony was playful
but pointed. "The most important parts of a film," he said, "are the
mysterious parts-- beyond the reach of reason and language."
When I asked him about the apparent change in his films--from the
early, more conventional dramas to the stylistic experiments of "2001"
and later films, with their emphasis on images and music--Kubrick
said, "There may be a change in the films but it doesn't mean there is
any personal change in me. What happens in the film business is
something like this: when a scriptwriter or director starts out,
producers and investors want to see everything written down. They
judge the worth of a screenplay as they would a stage play, and ignore
the very great differences between the two. They want good dialogue,
tight plotting, dramatic development. What I have found is that the
more completely cinematic a film is, the less interesting the
screenplay becomes. Because a screenplay isn't meant to be read, it's
to be realized on film.
"So if my earlier films seem more verbal than the later ones, it is
because I was obliged to conform to certain literary conventions.
Then, after some success, I was given greater freedom to explore the
medium as I preferred. There'll be no screenplay of 'Barry Lyndon'
published, because there is nothing of literary interest to read."
Kubrick's point is well taken. There is a scene in "Barry Lyndon,"
for example, which in Kubrick's screenplay simply read, "Barry duels
with Lord Bullingdon." Just that, nothing more. Yet what finally
reached the screen is one of the most stunning sequences in modern
film. The scene runs about six minutes and if little happens in terms
of actual content--three shots are fired and Barry is wounded in the
leg by his stepson--a great deal happens in terms of style. It took
six weeks--42 working days--just to edit the sequence. To find the
music--Handel's "Sarabande"--Kubrick listened to every available
recording of 17th and 18th-century music that he could acquire,
literally thousands of LPs. What he achieves in such moments of the
film might be called cinematic gestalts--inspired combinations of
words, images, music and editing rhythms, creating a kind of artistic
experience that no other medium can convey.
Eventually, Kubrick may end up in a cul-de-sac, for he is following
a similar line of development--using the "grammar" of the film
medium--to that pursued by James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov in
fiction. There is no question that Joyce and Nabokov--more than any
other writers in the 20th-century--brilliantly explored and expanded
the limits of language and the structure of novels, yet both were led
irresistibly and obsessively to cap their careers with those cold and
lifeless masterpieces, "Finnegans Wake" and "Ada," more to be
deciphered than read by a handful of scholars whose pleasure is
strictly ratiocination. It is characteristic of such careers that
people keep saying, "This time you've really gone too far! We liked
your last film or novel--but that's it!" The price of growth is
Two weeks after seeing "Barry Lyndon," I still hadn't formed a hard
judgment of it. I kept wanting it to "add up" to something profound.
But Victorian readers were equally dissatisfied within Thackeray's
story about a young Irish rake on the make who develops an inordinate
ambition to attain wealth, power and prestige, who gains the lot
unscrupulously and then loses it with another turn of fortune's wheel.
Readers complained bitterly that the story lacked a point, a purpose,
and above all, the customary dosage of moral edification.
"I have no head above my eyes," replied Thackeray to these
criticisms--a line that Kubrick could borrow to advantage. A second
viewing of the film did not alter my lack of resolution. Then one
night about another week later, I played the soundtrack
recording--Handel's "Sarabande," Women of Ireland" by The Chieftans,
and so on, and suddenly experienced a strong surge of emotion. Bits
and pieces of the film--Redmond Barry's tremulous first love with his
cousin Nora, the gaming tables banked in candlelight, the dueling
sequence, among others--came rushing back to life, and I realized that
they had become imperishable images in my memory, and that I was
seeing a film and appreciating qualities in a manner quite new to me.
Like many other critics and filmgoers, I have grown so accustomed
to films based on literary conventions and familiar structures, that
to see a film which stretches one's awareness of what can be achieved
in the medium seems prickly and puzzling. Kubrick's films have a
way--at least with some people--of working on in the mind, of passing
through all the stages from irritation to exhilaration. And curiously
enough--for critics are supposed to be the most progressive an
perceptive of filmgoers--it is the general public in this case,
unencumbered by literary prejudices, that has done most of the leading
in making "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange" not just films of immense
popularity but of steadily growing stature.
It may be only half-true to say that the split over Kubrick's films
is mainly between people who are verbally oriented and those who are
visually oriented. Instead, the basic division seems to be between
people who are fixed in their notions of what a film is or should be,
and those of more flexible personality who are willing to respond to
an esthetic experiment. Maybe the only abstract maxim that one can
derive from Kubrick's new film is: "Openness is everything."
John Hofsess is a Canadian film critic and the author of "Inner
Views: Ten Canadian Filmmakers."