Hang It on a Wall
Chris Wisniewski on Barry Lyndon
Since its initial release to mixed reviews in 1975, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon has been likened to a work that, in one way or another, belongs in a museum—a sentiment that has been intended as both praise and criticism. Pauline Kael, one of Kubrick's most vocal detractors, derided it as a "three hour slide show for art history majors" and complained that the voiceover narration by Michael Hordern was "like one of those museum tour guide machines." In A Cinema of Loneliness, Robert Kolker writes that the many suggestions that Barry Lyndon's images were suited more to a museum than a movie theater were "tantamount to saying the film was dead." Without explicitly saying so, it seems clear that Kolker clearly has in mind art museums that exhibit paintings, and the implication of his observation is that such museums are, like Barry Lyndon itself, austere, inert, deadening—that they invite detached appreciation and observation rather than the sort of engagement one might expect from audiences in a theater.
Barry Lyndon, an 18th-century picaresque adapted from a 19th-century novel by William Thackeray, certainly does have a painterly quality to it. It is static and studied, to the point that it often feels as though it were less made of moving images than a series of tableaux frozen in time. Throughout the film, Kubrick favors long shots, particularly landscape shots, over close-ups; in a frequently recurring visual motif, he zooms out on various actions from a medium-close shot to an extreme long shot—moving from the particular to the general, fixing his characters in the frame. Especially in the film's first act, Kubrick occasionally uses a telephoto lens to shoot his characters moving toward or away from the camera, flattening the image and thus making it seem as though his characters are walking or riding their horses in place. Rather famously, John Alcott, Kubrick's Oscar-winning cinematographer on the film, captured most of his images without artificial light sources (a number of interiors were lit exclusively by candle and shot with an extremely wide lens built for NASA), thus achieving a look more similar to paintings of the era than to other Hollywood period pictures. A number of shots even explicitly reference Hogarth, Watteau, Gainsborough, and other 18th-century artists (see, for example, this illustrative video). Kubrick's images have the look, feel, and composition of paintings one might expect to see at the National Gallery in London or the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in New York]. Does this mean, to follow Kolker, that they are dead?
Some have characterized Kubrick's refusal to use artificial light and his meticulous recreation of period detail—costume designer Milena Canonero even bought some antique costumes for the movie—as a bid for authenticity. But Barry Lyndon, which tells the story of how its titular character (Ryan O'Neal) is banished from his Irish home, enlists in the army, deserts, meets and marries a wealthy noblewoman (Marisa Berenson), and then loses everything, has a stilted quality to it, an ironic distance. Superficially, this tone appears at odds with his slavishly "authentic" and painterly visual style, but at a deeper level, both call attention to artifice. Kubrick's source material was itself a period piece, effectively meaning that Barry Lyndon is a representation of a representation—an adaptation of a text that was already nearly a century removed from its subject. The same level of remove is present in the movie's visual design: in evoking, referencing, and reproducing art of the period in which the film is set, Kubrick bases his visual scheme on images that are themselves already staged interpretations. In this sense, the painterly quality of Barry Lyndon, which might appear, at first, to ape a certain kind of realism, actually draws attention to the fact that all period films have a falseness to them: they cannot recreate the past; they can only comment on it.
Kubrick amplifies this distancing self-consciousness with recurring scenes of public rituals—a regiment marching for an audience, dances, duels, card games—performed for audiences who, like those watching Barry Lyndon in a theater, remain inert (these scenes anticipate the orgy scene that is the centerpiece of yet another Kubrick masterpiece about masculinity and death, Eyes Wide Shut). Barry Lyndon can be seen as a film about performance and spectatorship, a movie that questions why we would attempt to recreate the past and one that also challenges conventional assumptions about what we, as an audience, hope to get out of that re-creation.
The voiceover takes this ironic remove a step further, bordering on Brechtian distanciation. Hordern's omniscient narrator was Kubrick's creation, Thackeray having written his novel from Barry's perspective in the first person. Sometimes, Hordern simply recounts facts (reading, for example, the obituary of Sir Charles Lyndon as the character dies of a stroke); sometimes he reflects and ponders ("How different would Barry's fate have been if he'd never fallen in love with Nora or never threw the wine at Captain Quin?"); occasionally, he undercuts what is on screen (enthusing about the "tender passion [that] gushes instinctively out of a man's heart" as Barry timidly and unpassionately courts his cousin, coerced by the comparatively forward young woman to do so). Though intended as criticism, Kael's "museum tour guide" comment could be interpreted in a manner that is value-neutral and rather astute: the narrator ponders Barry's present from the future, looking back on everything we're seeing and providing an interpretive gloss that is both subjective and authoritative. Like museum-goers looking at art while reading exhibition text, Barry Lyndon's audience is invited to triangulate meaning through the assonance and dissonance of their observation of the images onscreen and the relationship those images have to the discursive, interpretive voiceover. This is evident from the movie's opening lines: "Barry's father had been bred, like many other young sons of a genteel family, to the profession of the law. And there's no doubt he would have made an eminent figure in his profession had he not been killed in a duel, which arose over the purchase of some horses," Hordern explains as Barry's father is killed—providing valuable backstory while also, with his closing phrase, subverting whatever emotional potency we might otherwise expect the scene to have. Without the narration, the images would have a completely different meaning and effect.
Reviewing Barry Lyndon in the autumn 1976 issue of Film Quarterly, Michael Dempsey, like Kolker, notes how frequently the film is characterized as a museum piece, but he seems to contradict Kolker in how he interprets the relationship between a museum and the concept of death: "The richly detailed images . . . have been called more suitable for a museum wall than a movie screen, a comment which misses the point perfectly because it forgets that 'paintings are static.' Moving images exist in time; they die." Like Kolker, he assumes the art-museum-that-exhibits-paintings as the reference point for Kubrick's film. Unlike Kolker, who sees museums as deadening spaces, Dempsey recognizes an essential and definitive aspect of museums: they exist, first and foremost, to preserve; they immortalize the art they collect (inasmuch as anything physical can be preserved against decay). Moving images, by contrast, exist in time and are, therefore, fleeting. For Dempsey, Barry Lyndon cannot be a museum piece because the moving image, in its very ephemerality, is diametrically opposed to what a museum is and what it does. Dempsey's thinking does not allow for the possibility of a museum of the moving image.
Having worked now, for many years, at a museum devoted to the moving image (and to be precise, the Museum of the Moving Image), I have spent a great deal of time pondering and debating this apparent contradiction between a museum as a space that exists to conserve and immortalize and the moving image as a time-based, impermanent form. Thomas Leeser, the architect who designed the Museum's expanded and renovated Astoria home, also had this tension in mind when conceiving of the space—his architecture seeks to somehow interrogate and perhaps to reconcile the permanence of the Museum's building with its inherently ephemeral subject matter. Yet there is a sense in which this isn't a tension at all. Recall André Bazin's notion that the cinema is "change mummified." Cinema captures a present that is always-already past—by the moment an image is committed to celluloid, it is already gone—and immortalizes those images, preserves them, like a museum would, in time. Bazin understood that the moving image enshrines a contradiction, one that is similar to the contradiction institutionalized by museums: cinema makes a process of decay permanent and eternally present; it stops time even as it exists in time.
I am reminded here of a site-specific installation at the Museum by Red Grooms and Lysiane Luong called Tut's Fever, a movie theater-cum-Egyptian tomb-cum-artwork that is meant to evoke the Orientalist architectural motifs that were commonly deployed in the movie palaces of the '20s and '30s. More generally, though, Tut's Fever deftly collapses the space of the museum, the movie theater, and the Egyptian tomb, recognizing (with deceptive playfulness) how all three spaces, here conflated into one space, effectively mummify. The Egyptian tomb, which is connected in the popular imagination to the idea of the art museum, is perhaps the most obvious example. Like tombs, though, movie theaters are also dark, silent spaces, in which visual or physical artifacts of the past are preserved, locked in time. Museums, too, strive to mummify, to fix their objects in time and to present them for quiet contemplation in spaces that invite reverence and stave off decay. Barry Lyndon alsofeels mummified. Just think of Barry's courtship of his cousin or his passionless flirtation with Lady Lyndon after he first meets her; O'Neal and Berenson move through the frame languorously and without a hint of emotion. They're zombies, the walking dead.
This is an elaborate way of saying that Barry Lyndon, with its painterly, static images which also chart a long, slow, and seemingly inevitable march toward death—a film that has the feel of a painting while being packed with incident—seems to have been made to be seen in a museum of the moving image.
Barry Lyndon is, without question, a film about death. It opens with the death of Barry's father; the intermission begins with the death of Sir Charles Lyndon; the entirety of act two traces Barry's slow decline and climaxes with the death of his son. Each of the movie's two acts begins with a title card that explains the trajectory of the narrative. The first purports to illuminate "By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon." Barry's assent is halted before he reaches his goal, however; act one ends with him at the verge of a great triumph but closes before that triumph is realized. Sir Charles simply dies, fade to black. Before the movie continues, a title card introduces act two: "Containing an account of the misfortunes and disasters which befell Barry Lyndon." Barry's decline begins before his greatest success, at the brief moment when his aspirations appear to be within his reach. Throughout the rest of act two, Barry is grasping at a moment already gone.
Barry Lyndon ends on a note of ambivalence, an epilogue that emphasizes mortality: "Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." The statement might seem cynical in its evocation of death as the great leveler, but if Kubrick's final sentiment appears to undermine the value of the story he's told, the great care he takes with each shot elevates the poor, sad, beautiful fools mummified within his frame. Kubrick and Alcott's remarkable images are immortal.
Barry Lyndon played December 30 and January 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.