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Form a Square For That Purpose: Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and the Illusion of Civility

In some respects, Barry Lyndon is seen as an outlier in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

The film is a lush and extended period drama, adapted from a nineteenth century novel set in the eighteenth century. It arrives in the middle of an acclaimed run of films from director Stanley Kubrick: Doctor Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. By all appearances, Barry Lyndon stands apart from these films. “Period piece” is obviously a film genre unto itself, but it is not as heightened as the bigger and bolder films around it.

Arresting imagery.

Barry Lyndon is arguably Kubrick’s only “period film” outside of Spartacus, which the director famously disowned and is arguably seen as a film more overtly influenced by its leading man than its director. Of course, some of Kubrick’s films move backwards and forwards in time; Full Metal Jacket takes place in the late sixties, while the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey is set at “the dawn of man.” Nevertheless, for many casual film fans approaching Barry Lyndon, the film’s period trapping stands out from the surrounding films, which are largely set near the present and into the future.

Indeed, it could be argued that this difficulty that casual observers have in positioning Barry Lyndon within the Kubrickian canon accounts for some of the controversy around the film’s place in the director’s larger filmography. Upon release, the film was largely met with confusion and disinterest, critics often struggling with what to make of the finished product. For his part, Kubrick dismissed the idea of critics forming a consensus on a film like Barry Lyndon after just one viewing.

Initial audiences weren’t enamored with the film.

Of course, this is arguably par for the course with Kubrick films, particularly those towards the end of his career. Many Kubrick films opened to a divided critical opinion before slowly solidifying their popular reputations over time; 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining. However, Barry Lyndon seems to be a special case. Debate was still raging over the critical merits of the film after Kubrick’s death, even in letter columns of newspapers like The New York Times. Even the release of remastered editions forty years later find proponents arguing the film is undervalued or underrated.

However, watching Barry Lyndon, the film never really feels like an outlier in terms of Kubrick’s filmography. Indeed, in some respects, it feels like a culmination of many of the director’s recurring themes and fascination. Barry Lyndon is perhaps the clearest articulation of some of the key themes within Stanley Kubrick’s larger body of work, in particular through its engagement with the Enlightenment as a window through which he might explore the human concept of “civilisation.”

Drawing to a close.

Repeatedly over the course of his filmography, Kubrick engages with the idea of civilisation and order, the structures that mankind imposes upon the world in order to provide a sense of reason or logic to a chaotic universe. Repeatedly in his movies, Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is really just a veneer that masks the reality of the human condition, providing a framework for acts of violence and self-destruction that seem hardwired into the human brain. Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is a fragile construct, and one that occasionally seems hostile to the nature of those who inhabit it.

Unfolding against the rigid social mores of the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon allows Kubrick to construct the starkest and most literal example of that theme.

Soldiering on.

In some ways Barry Lyndon‘s lavish eighteenth century setting feels like a culmination of a recurring aesthetic within Kubrick’s work. After all, the influence of the period can be seen repeatedly in Kubrick’s production design. When Bowman finds himself stranded “beyond the infinite” in 2001, this strange realm with the distorted sense of time is decorated in a very classical manner. Alex’s bedroom in A Clockwork Orange includes a poster of Ludwig van Beethoven like modern teenagers would hang posters of rock stars.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries echo through Kubrick’s work. Often literally, given the director’s frequent use of classical music in his films. Many of Kubrick’s most iconic sequences are choreographed to classical music, creating a tangible connection (and occasionally  between the scenes depicted on screen and these more classical sensibilities: the ballet of space ships in 2001, set to The Blue Danube; the “dancing Christ” in A Clockwork Orange, set to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; the sex scene in A Clockwork Orange set to William Tell Overture.

Enlightening.

Film critic (and Kubrick scholar) Michael Ciment has argued that Kubrick’s fascination with the Enlightenment might be traced back to the fact that Kubrick regarded the period “as the representation of all our current problems.” This is an interesting argument, given that the Enlightenment is generally considered to represent a point at which philosophers and scientist embraced reason and rationality as the cornerstone of the human experience, striving towards ideals like tolerance, freedom and progress. Kubrick seems to have a very cynical perspective on how that experiment turned out.

Kubrick’s filmography seems to argue that human beings are selfish and shortsighted creatures, with civilisation providing only the illusion of basic decency. At times, Kubrick’s world view comes close to nihilism. Doctor Strangelove ended with the destruction of the entire planet as the result of the development of the atomic bomb, and the only reason that 2001 did end with the detonation of all nuclear weapons by the “starchild” was because Kubrick did not want to repeat himself. Indeed, the epilogue to Barry Lyndon suggests that people are only truly equal in death. (Kubrick denies that this is a nihilistic idea.)

Amazing.

Kubrick repeatedly suggests that human beings are waiting for any opportunity to shed the veneer of civilisation. In A Clockwork Orange, the process by which society transforms Alex into a functioning member of his community is presented as monstrous and unnatural, a rejection of mankind’s normal chaotic state. In The Shining, Jack Torrence turns on his family after only a few months of isolation. In Full Metal Jacket, the Vietnam War suggests a realm in which all the rules that govern normal human interactions have been suspended and that every violent impulse might be indulged.

What makes Barry Lyndon so interesting is that it allows Kubrick to embrace these ideas directly, rather than in the abstract. It should be noted that Barry Lyndon coincides with the end of the Enlightenment era, with Lady Lyndon’s note paying Barry’s annuity dating the close of the film to 1789, “year of revolution.” This was the year that the French Revolution began, which many historians point to as the end of the Enlightenment. Indeed, the idea of violent revolution simmers through Barry Lyndon. Barry raises troops to fight for King George III in America, while Ireland would have its own revolution in 1798.

Never too far afield.

In many ways, Barry Lyndon is the story of a man trying to impose a structure and order on his life, in direct contravention of both his own nature and the rules governing such structures. Barry is a man who desperately aspires to fortune and status, but who discovers that the system has been designed in such a way as to make it impossible for him to accomplish anything meaningful. Barry tries to assert control of his own life and destiny, often to find himself at the mercy of forces beyond his reckoning.

During the Enlightenment, philosophers and artists grappled with questions of religion and spirituality. Had the world be designed by the hand of some divine authority? If so, how did this force allow evil to triumph? How could a compassionate divine being respond with such callousness towards the creations occupying the world? Perhaps in response to the trauma of wars driven by religious belief, many thinkers of the era pushed back against organised religion in favour of more personal belief systems like deism.

A barn-storming good time.

Indeed, religion is something of a minor recurring theme in Barry Lyndon. As Captain Grogan lies dying in a ditch, he rejects the notion of an afterlife where he and Barry might be reunited. (“Kiss me, me boy, for we’ll never meet again.”) This is contrasted with the death of Brian in the second half, in which the young child appeals to his parents to promise to reunite with him in the next life. (“Promise me never to quarrel so. But to love each other. So that we may meet again, in heaven.”)

The movie’s scathing epilogue suggests that all the film’s characters found equality in death. (“Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”) This suggests that the film embraces Grogan’s cold and rational view, his rejection of the idea of a better world waiting beyond this one. Brian’s innocence is that of a child. Indeed, Barry’s promise to reunite with his lost son might be seen as a lie, one just as fanciful as his embellishment of his military record for the child’s amusement. The world of Barry Lyndon is “simple, miserable, solid all the way through.”

Playing the hand that he has been dealt.

However, there is a complication in all of this. The film and the audience both understand that world of Barry Lyndon is very consciously and very clearly designed. This is clear in any number of ways, most obviously in the tight control that Kubrick maintains over the world of the film. The omniscient director who provides information and commentary has clear insight into the internal workings of Barry’s psyche, serving to provide a rhythm and structure to the story beyond random chance. Indeed, Kubrick made a point to choose an objective external narrator rather than adapting Barry’s own narration from the novel.

Kubrick’s compositions also suggest the work of a strong creative hand. Kubrick’s compositions were famously modelled on paintings. The director would tear inspiring artwork from artbooks and put them together in a scrapbook. He would consult that scrapbook when posing actors and positioning the camera. The characters in various scenes would move slowly in order to avoid the risk of under-exposure. This contributes to the film’s “alien” aesthetic. The careful framing and design suggests an attention to detail that contrasts with Barry’s subjective experience of the chaotic and random world.

Life just zooms by.

Indeed, it has frequently been suggested that “what The Shining is to the dolly/Steadicam shot, Barry Lyndon is to the zoom.” There are no fewer than thirty-six zooms in Barry Lyndon, most of them slow and measured movements that serve to literally pull the audience away from the characters. Kubrick often begins a shot in close-up and then pulls backwards to reveal the surroundings. The result is to make the characters seem small and insignificant, dwarfed by these beautifully composed shots, often of carefully maintained gardens or fantastic constructions.

Even the narrative of Barry Lyndon is designed to suggest some authorial hand at work. As with a lot of Kubrick’s work, and mirroring his framing and composition, the narrative in Barry Lyndon is designed to be symmetrical. The film is told in two parts; the rise and the fall. Events in those parts explicitly mirror one another: the deaths of Grogan and Brian, the floggings in Prussia and in Castle Hackton, the duels that start and end Barry’s journey, the brawl in “the square” and the brawl in the music room.

Where the magic happens.

Although Barry is too close to these events to discern a pattern, unable to step outside the narrative to hear the narrator or admire the composition, the audience can feel how consciously and carefully the film has been designed. However, the world of Barry Lyndon is not designed by some divine authority. Instead, it is very consciously the work of man, much like man has reshaped the landscapes through which Barry wanders and erected the beautiful castles through which Barry moves. The world of Barry Lyndon is built by men.

And often those men seek to impose civility upon the world. Barry Lyndon focuses repeatedly on codes of conduct and social moors, on the rules and traditions that govern human interactions in this era. Indeed, it could be argued that Barry Lyndon is as much an actor as Ryan O’Neal, often cast in roles of what other people expect him to be or what he needs to be in order to survive. In keeping with Kubrick’s approach to characterisation, Barry is often oblique to the audience. Often, Barry’s state of mind suggested not by his words or his deeds, but only through the narrator’s dialogue.

Road rage.

Indeed, in some cases, even Barry himself is oblivious to the role in which he has been cast. This is particularly true early in the film. Barry believes that he loves Nora, and that they should be together, casting himself as a romantic lead in some tragic epic. Nora and her family are much more pragmatic, understanding that their romance is just a dalliance. Nora conspires with Captain John Quinn to get Barry out of the way by staging a duel. As Barry rides off into the wild, he believes himself to be a free man charting his own course. However, he is simply playing a role that others have written for him.

As the narrative continues, Barry becomes more canny and begins casting himself in different roles. His seduction of the woman in Prussia demonstrates that Barry has become more cynical about romance, playing through the motions without any true emotional investment. Barry repeatedly navigates eighteenth century London by taking on different roles; Barry escapes the British army by impersonating an officer, and eludes the Prussians by disguising himself as the Chevalier. He eventually even takes on the role of an upper-class gentleman, taking Lady Lyndon as a prop.

She only gambles with her life.

However, despite Barry’s ability to transition between these roles and his attempts to navigate the class structures of the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon repeatedly suggests that the world has been designed in such a way as to prevent Barry from ever actually accomplishing anything. The rules of the game are set up in such a way as to ensure that Barry will always be exploited, and that he may never truly elevate himself. Even when he takes control of Castle Hackton, his mother shows up to remind him that the establishment will never allow Barry to hold on to his position. And she is right.

Barry is very clearly not cut out for the life of the upper class, although it is suggested that he was never truly welcome. His attempts to bribe his way to a title come to nothing, suggesting that his upper class acquaintances are willing to accept his money without accepting his right to be there. When Barry raises a company of troops to fight for the crown in the American Revolution, King George III tells Barry, “Good, Mr. Lyndon. Raise another company and go with them, too.” Barry might walk through the corridors of power, but he never belongs there.

Smart Alex.

Indeed, Barry’s nature finally gets the better of him when he attacks Lord Bullington in the music room. Lord Bullington provokes Barry, exposing “the insolent Irish upstart” to be just the sort of violent thug that most of the upper crust most likely believed him to be. The film suggests that this outburst served to alienate Barry from any of the friends that might have solidified his position, effectively dooming any hope that he had of solidifying his position within the class hierarchy. This would seem to be the entire point. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Barry is not ideally suited to exist in this sort of society.

Of course, Barry Lyndon repeatedly points out the absurdity and hypocrisy of this seemingly civilised society. The members of the upper class are horrified by Barry’s display of violence, but Barry Lyndon repeatedly emphasises the sort of violence that this society perpetuates. As much as these people might be disgusted at Barry’s outburst against Lord Bullington, this society does not condemn violence. Instead, it just provides clear and structured frameworks for violence, reacting in horror when violence occurs outside any of these carefully-established parameters.

Thinking outside the box.

The film suggests that this veneer of civility masks a violence heart. After all, people like Redmond Barry are primarily of interest as soldiers fighting in foreign wars. Even after he ascends to the upper class, King George III still clearly considers Barry to be expendable. However, this brutality is deemed acceptable because it takes place in the framework of war. “Gentlemen talk of the Age of Chivalry,” the narrator observes, “but remember the ploughmen, poachers and pickpockets they lead. It is with these sad instruments great warriors and kings have been doing their murderous work in the world.”

As with Full Metal Jacket, and with other Kubrick films, it frequently seems like the society depicted in Barry Lyndon revels in the creation of spaces where the rules of civil conduct no longer apply. Of course, there is always a sense of self-deceit about these spaces, a sense that the characters in Barry Lyndon tend to think of themselves as civilised even as they participate in these brutish and horrendous acts. This is a society that discusses war as a romantic and valourous act, while the film depicts its horrors and brutality.

War, huh? Good God Y’All…

Even on a smaller scale, this “enlightened” society makes a point to provide avenues for its subjects to inflict violence upon one another. When Barry starts a brawl with a fellow soldier, a more senior recruit intervenes. After all, such disorderly conduct cannot be tolerated. Instead, the senior recruit insists, “We’ll form a square for that purpose.” The square provides a space where the rules of civility can be suspended. Indeed, Kubrick embraces this idea by shooting the boxing match in a very visceral and frenetic manner, in contrast to the restraint that defines the rest of the film.

For the upper class, duels serve a similar purpose. These confrontations seek to impose order and morality on acts of extreme violence. Duels allow people who deem themselves superior to attempt murder, so long as they observe an agreed set of rules. Barry Lyndon never shies away from the horror of duels; Captain John Quinn trembles with fear even when he knows that (in theory) his life is not at risk, and Barry loses his leg as a result of a botched duel with Lord Bullington at the end of the film.

Duel of the fates.

There is nothing civil or polite about duels, despite how carefully the participants try to impose a sense of order upon them. Indeed, the film’s opening scene establishes the absurdity of this, of entire lives destroyed and disrupted by ideas of “honour.” The narrator explains, “Barry’s father had been bred, like many sons of genteel families to the profession of the law. There is no doubt he would’ve made an eminent figure in his profession… had he not been killed in a duel which arose over the purchase of some horses.” There is an incredible cruelty in this.

As such, Barry Lyndon feels very much like an archetypal Kubrickian movie. Perhaps it is the archetypal Kubrickian movie, an extended meditation on themes and ideas that simmer throughout Kubrick’s work. Barry Lyndon might stand apart from Kubrick’s other films, but it is also one of the most expansive and insightful explorations of some of Kubrick’s core themes and passions.

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