Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday Title Card #29

Fuck you, batteries.


The joy of a musical - that is, a good musical, not a bloated Broadway adaptation made not out of passion but for the commercial viability of a familiar property - is discovering the moments when a song reveals emotions that words alone cannot reach. Such a moment occurs early in Once, as a street musician and a woman he's just met (we never learn their names) are hanging around in a music store. He invites her to accompany him on a song he's been working on, and as she joins him on piano, the song's achingly romantic message overwhelms them and us. Once, which follows these characters over the course of a week as they write and record a few songs while an unspoken romance grows between them, is a minor masterpiece of understated feeling. Delicate and insightful where too many musicals are bombastic and obvious, Once is capable of transporting both lovers and haters of the genre with its devastating love story.

Once introduces us to a struggling songwriter (Glen Hansard) who works in his dad's vacuum repair shop and spends his time off singing Van Morrison songs for loose change on the streets of Dublin. One night, while performing one of his own songs, he meets a young Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) who likes his song; the guy is leaving for London in a week to try patching things up with his ex-girlfriend, and she agrees to help him write and record a few songs before he goes. That's about all there is for plot in Once, which is built on the moments where the guy and girl get to know each other. As they work together, it becomes clear they're made for each other. The guy is the type to refer to himself as a cynic, sweetly oblivious to how wrong he is; the girl has a daughter at home and a husband in another country, and is far too serious-minded to realize the obvious. While this story has been told before, from Brief Encounter to Lost in Translation (likely its most direct influence), Once becomes completely unique in its study of two characters who cannot quite fully connect for precisely the reasons that they are perfect for each other. First-time feature director John Carney (formerly a member, like his lead actor, of the band The Frames) has a remarkable talent for revealing worlds about his characters in a moment; he's brave enough, for instance, to have a character deliver the most important line in the film in Czech.

Almost as impressive as the story itself is the way that Carney uses digital video to tell it. Until recently, I was dubious about DV, as most directors who used it raved about its functional ease without commenting much on its aesthetic qualities (mumblecore is commendable in theory, but I have yet to see a DIY film I like). But after last year's Inland Empire and now Once, the possibilites of digital have been blown wide open. In Once, the low-tech images have an intimate quality that matches the story of homegrown artists perfectly. Every shot is beautifully composed in a way I haven't seen in DV before.I was inspired not only by the story but by the filmmaking itself - it's a film that leaves one energized by possibility. There's a confidence in every moment that reminds of how imagination and vision are infinitely more valuable than a huge budget. I'm not always quick to buy into the romance of independent cinema, but Once fulfills this promise better than any film in a long time.

Once isn't a perfect movie - I agree with Todd VanDerWiff, who writes that "While the songs are good, the film requires us to believe that they’re so good that they simply cause everyone around Hansard to realize what an untapped genius he is." Still, its hard to complain about a film with this much soul, particularly since its imperfections become part of its charm. There are few films that contain as much pure warmth as Once; that it's a pretty great movie is all the better.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tilting at Windmills



It must be weird to be Damian Arlyn right now.

Since so much has been written in the past week about what Mr. Arlyn has come to represent, it might be helpful to begin by talking about who he is (thank you, Google). Damian Arlyn is a 31-year-old resident of Corvallis, Oregon. The manager of DVD World by day, Mr. Arlyn also participates in theatrical productions at the Corvallis Community Theatre (you can read about the recent Arlyn-directed production of Dracula here). Damian is also a born-again Christian who explains on his MySpace page that he decided not to include Jesus on his list of heroes because "the term 'hero' doesn't even begin to describe the place he holds in my life" (as his list of heroes includes both Martin Luther and Denzel Washington, I'd have to agree with his decision). It seems clear that Damian is a sincere, serious-minded man with a genuine love for cinema.

Damian, as many of you know, also has a blog. And last week, in the middle of his ambitious, entertaining "31 Days of Spielberg" project, he became the subject of some very serious accusations. Damian addressed those charges in his blog, and you can read what he had to say for himself here. I believe Damian is genuinely sorry for his mistake, but as of this writing, it seemed that he didn't really understand what people were so angry about. Damian never expected to be famous, and now, he explains, "I never anticipated this project would bring me into contact with actual published authors who have written on Spielberg, even if it's not under the best of circumstances." I understand how Damian feels, and not just because I, too, take a lot of crap for defending Spielberg. I never expected my writing here to be read by anyone other than a few friends, and I'm grateful for my readers and the ideas you share here. In return, I feel a responsibility to give you reading material that is passionate, well-written (to the best of my abilities), and, of course, accurate. And while I like Damian and his writing, I'm troubled by this:

"However, I am not doing--nor have I ever done--this for praise, for esteem, for glory, for fame and certainly not for money. One thing I have never lost sight of is that in the big scheme of things, I am a nobody. I am a thirty-one-year-old video store clerk who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. I make little more than minumim wage a year and I happen to love movies. I never intended for this blog to be anything more than an expression of one little guy's passion and affection for cinema. Thus, I began this 'Spielberg' project because I admire Spielberg and his films and I wanted to share that admiration with other people and maybe--just maybe--even spark a little bit of discussion on him because I personally don't think that enough can ever be said about this great artist."

To use his own term, Damian is the little guy. You can find the little guy across the blogosphere, in colleges, and in any formal or informal film discussion. The little guy uses his relative insignificance to paint himself in favorable terms. The little guy might apologize for having tastes that are way more offbeat or obscure than yours. Or, as in this case, the little guy is just one more incarnation of the little boy who hangs out in the projection booth in Cinema Paradiso. The little guy is a silent apostle of the cinema, unknowlingly engaging in his own form of self-mythologizing behavior. And the moment Damian allows himself to become the little guy, however genuine his intentions may be, he loses all sense of personal accountability.

That said, I'm quite sure that Damian feels a bit differently about it this week. Because Damian is no longer just a thirty-one-year-old video store clerk from Corvalis; he's a living symbol for the divide between print and internet film writing and the question of how journalistic standards differ or remain the same between different mediums. And just as Damian's self-image tells us much about his actions, the same is true of his most rabid detractors, many of whom showed up before scandal broke to anonymously inform Damian that he is a terrible writer. Most telling of all, to me, is the public sermon on Mr. Arlyn performed by D.K. Holm, who dismisses Damian's writing as "pretty much like every other blog in the world" and connects his downfall to something larger:

There is another kind, that is more pervasive and insidious and nearly invisible. That’s the group-think that sweeps across the nation as certain reviews and reviewers set the tone and limit the terms of response to a film."

The irony is that D.K. Holm is Damian Arlyn's spiritual father, having made a living from the summary/trivia format he claims to abhor (the difference being that Holm is paid for his efforts). Damian Arlyn does not realize that he loves himself; D.K. Holm cannot admit that he hates himself. Arlyn's colleagues at The House Next Door have done a better job of more clearly stating their intentions, offering a brief explanation of why Arlyn was removed from their masthead and, like the jurors stepping away from the table in 12 Angry Men, expressing in relative silence what so many supporters and detractors in so many words have not quite been able to communicate.

So, yes, I do wonder what today was like for Damian Arlyn. To have found such massive support (the blogosphere's generosity being its finest quality) only, with one unfortunate error in judgement, to find himself at the center of a debate that is no longer about him. To have inadvertenly tapped such a deep well of buried resentment from elitists and populists alike. To stand behind the counter as angry customers demand their two dollars back because Pan's Labyrinth was in Spanish (and oh, those black bars!). Damian's silence is our loss, and when he's ready, I anxiously await his return. Because, after all, the world needs a passionate defense of The Terminal.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I had quite a normal childhood.


Roger Ebert has frequently stated that he rates films according to how well the filmmakers succeed at what they were aiming for. By Ebert's logic, Lukas Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart is a smashing success. Moodysson has stated in interviews that he intended his film to be off-putting to audiences, and it's certainly quite repugnant. It's unfortunate for us, however, that Moodysson didn't aim higher, because while A Hole in My Heart is composed almost entirely of images sure to ruin one's appetite, it's never truly disturbing, shocking or even particularly interesting. It's a pointlessly gross and stupid film that tries to say something insightful about porn, television and spiritual decay but, to paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, only treads in a sea of retarded sexuality.


In a cramped apartment, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck) and Geko (Goran Marjanovic) are busy making an amateurish porn starring Geko and Tess (Sanna Brading), a dim-witted young woman with aspirations of starring on Big Brother. The three descend into increasingly grotesque, extreme scenarios while Rickard's teenage son Eric (Bjorn Almroth) sulks in his bedroom with his pet worms and grating industrial music. And that's pretty much it - for 100 or so minutes, Richard and Geko (and Moodysson) do countless degrading things to Tess, who flees at one point only to return bearing junk food for further degradation. I'm not at all against extreme content in cinema; in fact, I'm always excited to discover filmmakers who are willing to examine uncomfortable or grotesque material with a seriousness and purpose, and I appreciate it when a filmmaker doesn't feel the need to block our eyes as if we were children. But A Hole in My Heart is a film composed entirely of extremes, edited in a series of epileptic jump cuts punctuated by screeching noise, that becomes wearyingly monotonous within minutes. I'm currently writing a screenplay set in and around a strip club, and I was at first confused by my instinct to include several moments of the characters performing mundane, everyday tasks (sleeping, watching tv, etc.). As the script has progressed, it's clearer to me that, if my film is to work at all, it needs the contrast between the characters' manufactured sexual personae and their unobserved selves. There's no such contrast in A Hole in My Heart, and in the absence of any genuine attempt at emotional authenticity, the characters are merely vehicles for Moodysson's skeezy, hyperbolic moralism.


The most pathetic thing about A Hole in My Heart is its complete failure even to shock us. It's disgusting in a way that comes off as cheating - it's easy to cut to, say, a close-up of vaginal reconstructive surgery without warning or context and get a reaction from the audience. It's harder to give such images real power or consequence. Directors like Todd Solondz, David Lynch and Michael Haneke give us films infinitely more disturbing than A Hole in My Heart with only a fraction of the overtly shocking imagery. They have the insight and craft to disturb us with the implications of their images - it's the ideas in Happiness or Blue Velvet that make those films so unsettling, not just the quantity of nipples or viscera on display. The irony of Moodysson's use of the confessional style of reality TV is that, while it's meant as a comment on the emptiness of popular culture, his film has even less to say (at least Big Brother is sometimes inadvertently insightful). I really wanted to "get" A Hole in My Heart, to have the geek show I'd endured arrive at the apocalyptic moment of truth it had promised. But by the time the film arrived at the image of a character vomiting into another's mouth with Bach's St. Matthew Passion blaring on the soundtrack, I could only laugh with rage at the purest marriage of pretension and idiocy I've ever seen.

A few days before seeing A Hole in My Heart, I watched Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day. It was the first of her films I'd seen, and while I didn't like it, it was made with an assuredness of tone and style that made me want to check out more of her work. I never, ever want to see another Lukas Moodysson film. I don't care if Together and Fucking Amal are cute, or that Lilja 4-ever was on a bunch of top-10 lists. I think Lukas Moodysson is an ass. I think he hates movies and everything else I hold dear. The fact that he's both a Socialist and a Christian isn't an interesting idiosyncracy, it just helps explain how a film could be so demoralizing and preachy at the same time. A Hole in My Heart is the work of a complete fraud; to arrive after 100 minutes of nihilistic ugliness at a group hug is a sick, insulting joke, and while the film has mostly been panned, it's geniunely baffling to read Reverse Shot's Eric Hynes praise it as "achingly humane." According to the film's IMDb trivia page, Thorsten Flinck had to turn to drugs to make it through the film's more harrowing scenes. I only wish I'd had as much foresight.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Top 10: Voice-over




"IN A WORLD WHERE..."

Voice-over is often used to gloss over narrative problems or water a challenging film down in the name of accessibility (Blade Runner being the most notable example of the latter). But like any cinematic device, when placed in the hands of talented filmmakers, voice-over can be transformed from something familiar into something we've never quite seen (or heard before).


1. Days of Heaven Terrence Malick's four films have all employed voice-over to great effect, the disconnected thoughts of characters in The Thin Red Line and The New World enhancing those films' meditative tones, and Sissy Spacek's rambling, disconnected thoughts in Badlands achieve a sort of banal poetry. In Days of Heaven, Malick presents the tragic turn-of-the-century love story from the point of view of the protagonist's preteen sister. First-time film actress Linda Manz narrates in a flat, unaffected manner that perfectly compliments her character, who is inarticulate but perceptive about the lives of those far older than her. Malick has been criticized for emotionally distancing his audience from the story; in fact, the narrator's guileless, wide-eyed memories draw us directly into the film's devastatingly ephemeral heart.


2. A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick once called this a "Who do you root for?" movie, and the director frequently used voice-over to confound his audience's expectations. The matter-of-fact, dryly statistical narrator in The Killing reduces the film's heist down to a shopping list of times, amounts, and other quantities, while the cruel storyteller of Barry Lyndon undercuts the characters' actions and dreams with savage irony (a device used in recent films like Dogville and Little Children). In both Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, the protagonists relate their stories with eloquence and wit, confusing our loyalties by causing us to sympathize with characters who do reprehensible things. A Clockwork Orange is particularly brilliant in this respect - Malcolm McDowell is charasmatic and strangely sexy as the young hooligan Alex, who recounts his evenings spent raping and pillaging with great gusto and his subsequent arrest and reconditioning with terrible sorrow. Kubrick asks us to sympathize with the devil in order to convey the film's philosophical message; the technique is no doubt manipulative, but it's also sickly hilarious and frequently imitated (see also: Trainspotting and American Psycho).


3. Taxi Driver Like A Clockwork Orange, the voice-over in Taxi Driver is meant to align us with a difficult character. But where Kubrick's aim was satire, Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader want us to understand Travis Bickle. As he prowls the city streets, seething with contempt for the decaying world around him, Robert DeNiro's narrative gives voice to fears, obsessions, and compulsions that, while extreme, are also all too recognizable. As Travis' inexpressive rage transforms into brutal violence, the scariest implication is that his madness is, somehow, our own.


4. Sunset Boulevard Has there ever been a filmmaker more joyously clever than Billy Wilder? Sunset Boulevard contains his wittiest device, the story of a murder recounted by the corpse. It's a concet that would prove popular - American Beauty, in particular, used it to wonderful effect - but in Sunset Boulevard, it's more than a plot device. Wilder's vision of Hollywood as a cemetary, a place where the long-forgotten dwell, is complimented by poor Joe Gillis' narration from beyond the grave. It's a perfectly acidic vision of the dark side of a city devoted to attaining cinematic immortality.


5. To Kill a Mockingbird The voice-over in Robert Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's book has been frequently imitated over the years to lesser effect. The imitators attempt to mimic the unpretentious Southern charm of an adult Scout's memories of her youth, but they miss the eerier moments, the ghostly intimations of doom, and the bitter nature of an adult's memories of the moment she stepped into a world of absurd intolerance. There's nothing saccharine about the narrative - like the rest of the film, it's possessed with a hauntingly delicate soul that is ultimately heartbreaking.


6. Cries and Whispers One of Ingmar Bergman's best films, Cries and Whispers is bathed in red, a color that Bergman said he imagined the inside of the soul to be. And Cries and Whispers is a film composed of interiors, both literally and through the diary entries of the dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Agnes' memories of her life and her emotionally remote sisters are almost impossibly sad, laced with regret, confusion, and fear. All the more stunning that Cries and Whispers ends with Agnes' happiest memory, and Bergman, for once, grants his storyteller a moment of peace (for more on the ending, go here).



7. The Postman Always Rings Twice Film noir is littered with hapless schmoes who become putty in the hands of a smarter, more calculating woman. Never was this more perfectly realized than in the 1946 version of James M. Cain's novel. John Garfield's Frank recounts his torrid, deadly affair with Cora (Lana Turner) in a voice-over filled with uncertainty (Frank's most-used phrase is "I guess"), jealously and insecurity. It's not only good pulp, it's a sharp examination of the tortured male psyche.


8. The Royal Tenenbaums The narration in the story of a family of geniuses has the mannered, matter-of-fact style of a novel one might find in the young-adult section of the library (it's particularly reminiscent of Salinger, whose Franny and Zooey Wes Anderson owes a great debt to). Alec Baldwin's solemn, matter-of-fact delivery is a hilarious compliment to the film's deadpan tone and the eternal adolescence of the Tenenbaums.


9. The Big Lebowski The Coens often have a great deal of fun with voice-over, from Nicolas Cage's hayseed philosopher in Raising Arizona (Ebert panned the film for the narration, but I adore it) to Billy Bob Thorton's apology for his long-windedness ("They're paying me by the word") at the end of The Man Who Wasn't There. Best of all is The Big Lebowski, the story of a burnt-out bowling aficionado-turned-amateur detective as told by a folksy, sarsaparilla-swilling cowboy who may also be God. But there I go, ramblin' again...


10. Adaptation Like many of the films on this list, Adaptation does a fine job of using voice-over to illustrate its characters' unspoken fears and desires. But the moment that really sets Adaptation apart occurs when Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is attending one of Robert McKee's famous screenwriting seminars; as Kaufman excoriates himself in voiceover for looking for easy answers, his thoughts are interrupted by McKee (Brian Cox), who warns, "God help you if you ever use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! That's flaccid, sloppy writing!" From that point on in the film, Kaufman's inner voice is silent.






Monday, August 13, 2007

Gratuitous Nudity #3


Christine Noonan and Malcolm McDowell, If... (1969)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Trim Bin #60


- Damian Arlyn's 31 Days of Spielberg project is well underway over at Windmills of My Mind, and it's been a fascinating, discussion-provoking defense of Spielberg as a real auteur thus far. As an unabashed fan, I particularly enjoyed Arlyn's response to familiar criticisms in his article on E.T., a film that, more than any of my other favorites, I've had to defend on a number of occasions:

"I would never want to bully anybody into liking E.T. (nor would I ever say that someone is devoid of humanity or has “ice” in their veins because they feel nothing when watching it) but neither do I care for the implication that just because I am one of the millions of people who happen to be very moved by the film, that I am somehow a mindless sheep, a deluded fool not sophisticated enough to realize when he’s been “played like a piano” or whatever. To the people that might make this elitist claim, I tend to want to respond in kind with my own personal brand of elitism that asserts I would rather be a "foolish" believer, a sensitive soul, romantic at heart able to see the good in something than a hardened cynic blinded to the immense riches and rewards right in front of them if they would only have the humility and willingness to “open themselves up” to it. I do hope that for such individuals there is something (perhaps even a film) that brings them a comparable degree of joy, sadness and just general affirmation of what they hold dear. I hope there’s something in their lives that they cherish as much as I cherish E.T. because if so, they’re very lucky people."

- Rob Zombie's Halloween is almost upon us, and the newest trailer is wonderfully creepy. On the other hand, Zombie damns himself with some old quotes discovered by Stacie Ponder. Usually I have a pretty good sense of what I'll love or hate, but I have no idea how idea how I'll feel about Halloween, and I can't wait to find out.

- Siskel and Ebert's old reviews have found their way to the internet. For insight, watch their argument over Blue Velvet; for laughs, check out Siskel's faith in cinema shaken by She's Out of Control.

- Dual tributes to Bergman and Antonioni written by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, respectively, remind that a great director is first and foremost a great fan (they also serve as a welcome antidote to Jonathan Rosenbaum's contrarian wankery).

- Finally, a grand piece of film writing: Walter Chaw's epic journey through the films of Patrick Swayze.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Scary German Guy is bitchin'!


I watched The Monster Squad endless times as a preschooler when it was in heavy rotation on HBO - in fact, when my wife mentioned to my mom that I'd picked up the long-overdue DVD release, there was a long silence before my mom responded, "I've seen that movie twenty goddamn times." I assume that The Monster Squad has little appeal for those who didn't first see it when they were between the ages of three and eleven. I don't mean this as a case of nostalgia, as I have enough distance from my earliest movie-watching experience to know that Harry and the Hendersons, for instance, is really quite bad. The Monster Squad, on the other hand, is one of those movies that requires a child's imagination to do some of the heavy lifting; rewatching it, I realized that what I had long remembered as a film of epic scope was actually a fairly low-budget 82-minute B-movie (although makeup effects artist Stan Winston and VFX head Richard Edlund do wonders with what they have). However, this only increased my affection for the film - its modesty is perhaps its greatest charm, its battle between a group of nerdy kids and cinema's most iconic monsters a jolt of smart, unpretentious fun that puts bloated studio product like Van Helsing to shame.


The Monster Squad is one of those great 80's movies (Explorers and The Goonies are two other examples, with Stephen King's book It a masterpiece of the subgenre) that rewards young genre-loving geeks with the promise that their knowledge of aliens, pirates or vampires is preparation for an awfully big adventure. When we first meet Sean (Andre Gower), the leader of the titular gang of kids, he's wearing a homemade t-shirt that reads "Stephen King Rules" and getting chewed out by the school principal for drawing monsters in class. But director Fred Dekker and writer Shane Black know, as we do, that our formative years are better spent learning about Cthulhu than the Magna Carta. Sean's expertise pays off when Dracula arrives in his small suburban town (why is not really clear, except that he owns real estate there) and assembles Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Gillman (so named for legal reasons) to carry out his evil plans. The plot involves an amulet, a vortex, and Van Helsing, and it occurs to me that nearly every movie would be improved with these three things (except, of course, Van Helsing). As the kids assemble in their treehouse to plan a once-in-a-century opportunity to stop Dracula and his cohorts, it becomes clear that this is a film borne out of Black and Dekker's (ho ho) childhood dreams and fears - it's a film where the monster in the closet is real, no matter what mom and dad say. As such, it is much more than a calculated attempt to repackage creaky franchises in a slick modern package; it's a labor of love, and goofy as it is, I can't help loving it.


While it's pretty clear that The Monster Squad owes a lot to The Goonies, it's also superior to that film in that, for a film aimed at kids, it's surpisingly rough-edged. Early in the film, schoolyard bullies taunting Fat Kid (Brent Chalem) actually call him a "faggot" - these aren't Disneyfied goons but realistic, nasty little shits. Later in the film, Fat Kid uses a shotgun to blow away one of the monsters; the moment isn't softened at all, the monster bleeding and crying out in a protracted death sort of astonishing in a PG-13. Contrast this with last year's Monster House, a good movie that just missed greatness with an end-credits denouement designed to reassure kids that all is well. The Monster Squad isn't afraid to raise the stakes; there's a genuine possibility that Wolfman could just rip these kids limb from limb, and we become unusually invested in their fates. This extends to the movie's schmaltzier elements - the reformed Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan) is one of a long line of 80's-movie ET-surrogates, but Noonan and 5-year-old Ashley Bank play their scenes together with enough authenticity that what could have been cloying elicits a genuine "awww."


The moment that really sets The Monster Squad apart involves Scary German Guy (Leonard Cimino) an elderly local expert on monsters who helps the kids in their mission. As the kids are leaving Scary German Guy's house, one comments that he doesn't seem very afraid of monsters, and Scary German Guy responds that (I'm paraphrasing) he knows there are enough real monsters to be afraid of. As Scary German Guy closes the door, Dekker cuts to a close-up of a concentration camp tattoo on his wrist. It's a real "Whaaa?!!" moment, but questionable taste aside, it gives the movie real weight. The Monster Squad is a celebration of outsiders - seeing a bunch of bookish, strange kids battling a particularly totalitarian Dracula, it gives hope to kids persecuted at school for the very qualities that may someday ennable them to make the world a better place. And just as important, it teaches us that Wolfman has, in fact, got nards.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mightn't I be allowed to keep my horse?


I used to hate Barry Lyndon. I first saw the film when I was fourteen, soon after discovering the dizzying, almost narcotic rush of A Clockwork Orange (the perfect film for sharp-witted teens beginning to develop a distrust of authority), and I was blown away by the cinematography, which remains unparalleled. At the same time, I felt that Stanley Kubrick was using the film's painterly images to tell a rather humdrum story devoid of intrigue or emotional investment, and I resented Kubrick for what I read as a sick joke. I was wrong, but I was also right - Barry Lyndon is a perverse film, one that keeps its audience forever at a distance from its story, constantly undercuts even the slightest chance of suspense, and arrives at a conclusion that dismisses its characters' lives as competely meaningless and forgettable. Yet at the same time that it practically forces us towards indifference, Barry Lyndon unfolds with a sort of beautiful, epic splendor that contradicts the film's own claims of irrelevance. It's a maddening, unforgettable cinematic experience; of all my favorite films, I hate this one most.



Barry Lyndon opens in wide shot - this is not uncommon with Kubrick, but it is used for a drastically different effect. Consider the opening image of 2001, designed to overwhelm our senses; or The Shining, with its labyrinthine helicopter shots teasing our anticipatory sense of dread. But from its first image, which depicts the death of the protagonist's father in a duel, Barry Lyndon keeps us at a distance. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott (with the help of a Zeiss lens originally used by NASA) create a period piece with an astounding sense of immediacy, the image of the opening duel composed with such astonishing depth and clarity that we feel present in the action. But rather than using the images to pull us in, Kubrick remains remote, a time traveller observing the alien behaviors and practices of 18th-century Europe. This gives each shot an oppressive weight, as though each moment were a slide examined through the microscope lens; this deterministic approach is perfect for a protagonist who remains almost totally passive in his own fate. We meet Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) as a sullen, lovestruck youth and follow him across the continent as he wins and then loses everything through no fault or effort of his own.


Kubrick uses O'Neal's vacant screen presence brilliantly - Barry is a cipher who is able to deceive his way into wealth and status not through any particular talents of his own but out of sheer luck (indeed, the Thackeray novel upon which the film is based was originally titled The Luck of Barry Lyndon). The scene when Barry romances the wealthy, widowed Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) is a masterpiece of surfaces, both actors photographed like perfectly-made porcelain dolls similarly incapable of demonstrating actual emotion. The narrator (Michael Hordern) assures us they have fallen in love, a fact we might have otherwise missed; throughout, the narration dryly mocks these characters' half-realized aspirations and lays bare their actual motivations (in original editions of the book, occasional notes from the editor served the same purpose). These characters have no apparent inner selves, substituting manners for morals and objects for ideas. The meticulously recreated props and costumes, along with the striking period locations, supply not just the film's style but its meaning - Kubrick simultaneously fetishizes the art and culture of the period while attacking the shallow materialism of his characters. Kubrick's films are frequently about the struggle of the individual; here, the individual has receded into the background, upstaged by the tapestries. It's as sharp a comment about the present as it is the past.


The film builds deliberately, almost to the point of boredom - what would constitute a good 40 minutes' worth of action in other films stretches past the intermission here. We begin to wonder why Kubrick has forced us to endure this endless parade of images that make us feel nothing. It's actually a setup, and Kubrick snares us with the introduction of the adult Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), Barry's stepson, who returns after a childhood of petty torments from his ineffectual stepdad to assert his rightful claim to his family's wealth. The moment when Bullingdon uses his smirking half-brother to interrupt a concert with a clomping pair of boots is a genuine shock; by destroying the sustained audiovisual symmetry, its as if violence has been done to the film itself. Kubrick presents our children as the only beings we must ultimately answer to - this is paralleled, devastatingly, with the death of Barry's own son after his fall from the horse that was the boy's birthday present. We do not see the fall happen at first; then, as the boy recounts it, Kubrick cuts suddenly, jarringly, to an image that represents everything we reach for and fail to attain. Dissonant noise replaces Schubert on the soundtrack for one moment, exposing the underlying chaos that we attempt to overrule by creating our own meaning. In this sense, Barry Lyndon is also a comment on the cinematic apparatus, which cannot help but recreate a reality that it was designed to reproduce.


Barry Lyndon, more than any of Kubrick's other films, invites the oft-repeated criticism of the director as a cold, calculating misanthrope, and it's certainly his chilliest film. However, while Kubrick's evaluation of humanity is unsparing, the film is almost religious in its search for meaning in the meaningless. Late in the film, Barry finally commits a selfless act, for which he is mercilessly punished. Kubrick has no sympathy for overdue introspection; his films attest to his understanding of existence as an ongoing practice that may eventually be perfected, and as the ending of 2001 demonstrated, he was capable of great hope. So while Barry Lyndon is far from Kubrick's cuddliest picture, it is nevertheless a perfect, dazzling example of the search for truth even in the most untruthful of worlds.