Barry Lyndon

Notes on the best film of 1975 (click here for the rest), originally written for a decade or so ago — this is the old, original, lively, not the thing called that today.

by Robert Horton

When you get older, one of the things that amazes you is the way certain comforting Truths begin to fall away. You grow up assuming that Yankee Stadium will always stand, or that Frank Sinatra will always be alive, or that every year there will be another new novel by Elmore Leonard. And at some point you realize these things won’t always be true.

One such truth is Stanley Kubrick’s status as The Olympian Filmmaker. It is strange to look around and realize that Kubrick isn’t setting campuses or Op Ed pages abuzz anymore, unless it is for his eccentric work habits; making only two features since 1980 will do that. Kubrick-mania used to be an essential part of any 20-year-old’s coming of age, but now the mystical aura around the director — like the corona that breaks across the monolith at the beginning of 2001 — has dimmed.

barry8These melancholy thoughts fit a discussion of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which is the director’s most contemplative, meditative film. It is also the film with which Kubrick began his gradual cooling-off, at least as far as the public at large was concerned, after the sensational reception of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange. Yet something beautiful and human shines out of Barry Lyndon, this coolest and most controlled of films.

The outline of the Thackeray source novel suits Kubrick’s mordant sensibility: A roguish 18th-century Irish lad rises in the world, only to receive his comeuppance. Somewhat surprisingly, Kubrick’s film is less humorous and mocking than Thackeray’s book; I say surprisingly because, after all, this is the director who generally treats humans as an incorrigible species of bug, eminently worthy of Strangelovian sarcasm. Sometimes Kubrick finds people interesting (in Lolita, for instance, and The Shining), sometimes not (2001). But in Barry Lyndon Kubrick actually seems moved by the rise and fall of a not-particularly-admirable man. Continue reading

1975 Ten Best Movies

Barry Lyndon was playing at the Cinerama theater in downtown Seattle in 1976, perhaps on the very day I applied for a job there. I had friends who worked at the Cinerama; how hard could the job be? You wore an orange sportcoat (the uniform of an usher at SRO-owned theaters back then), you sat around and goofed off during the movie, you occasionally wandered through the auditorium and told people to get their feet off the seatbacks. You got to see free movies, too. A pretty good job in high school.

Nobody told me about the phenomenon of the job interview, or that you were supposed to have some bullshit answer all ready when the manager asked you why you wanted to work for the company. I mean, it was selling popcorn — wasn’t it enough to show up? I think I even tried on the orange sportcoat, just to get that SRO feel. But no job. When you can’t get hired for a movie-theater ushering gig, your job-interviewing skills need polishing up. Must make a note to do that.

barry4None of this has tarnished my feeling for Barry Lyndon, which my friends still let me in to see for free. Stanley Kubrick’s cool, measured masterpiece just outpoints a very dissimilar picture, Robert Altman’s Nashville, as best of 1975. The Altman film is perhaps the loosest, most casual-feeling Grand Statement ever put on film, and it always looks a little unfinished, as though relying on the viewer to complete the shambling mosaic. Nothing in Barry Lyndon is out of place. I go on at greater length about it in a separate posting (click here for that). In the meantime, the ten best movies of 1975:

1. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)

2. Nashville (Robert Altman)

3. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)

4. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)

5. The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser/Every Man for Himself and God Against All (Werner Herzog)

6. Night Moves (Arthur Penn)

7. Jeane Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman)

8. Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

9. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir)

10. Love Among the Ruins (George Cukor)

This list makes accidental neighbors of The Man Who Would Be King and The Passenger, two stories of Westerners who get lost in the Middle East; the Huston film is a gloriously traditional example of ancient storytelling techniques, while the Antonioni sets off into the wide-open spaces of the New. The Cukor title is an absolutely lovely TV-movie with Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier; and as long as TV gets in there, what about Fawlty Towers, a near-perfect exercise in serial farce, which debuted in 1975? The Akerman domestic epic (currently being shown again) contains a few of the most astonishing time-bombs ever detonated in movies, and the Fassbinder could be joined by Fear of Fear, a little-known number from RWF that shows off his love of Douglas Sirk. Some good U.S. films miss the cut: Jaws and Shampoo, for instance. The Story of Adele H. isn’t at the top of my favorite Truffaut movies, but it could be on there, and maybe Tarkovsky’s The Mirror if I remembered it better. Also Ousmane Sembene’s Xala, a raucous political satire for the pre-Viagra era.

Next week: 1964.