Ploughmen, Poachers and Pickpockets

“While running the risk of displaying weaknesses that Pauline Kael would sneer at, I can think of just one instance of having completely reversed my opinion of a film that I had previously weighed in on in print — Stanley Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon.

“On first viewing, its overall point and meaning eluded me, and I was not able to appreciate anything beyond its pictorial and musical qualities; it was only on second viewing that its staggering, Stroheimesque stature as a corrosive contemplation of the foolishness of most human endeavor became abundantly clear.” — Variety‘s Todd McCarthy in a 10.11.01 piece called “Some Films Are Worth A Second Look.”

  • Mr. Gittes

    My favorite movie of all time. The “Captain Feeney at your service” scene might be my favorite, but the last twenty minutes, concluding with that haunting title-card, is something else. Something of a masterpiece. I’ll have it on Criterion blu-ray, please.

    Given that Barry Lyndon is Martin Scorsese’s favorite Kubrick film, I’m looking forward to Marty’s tackling of The Last Duel.

  • BadHatHarry

    Every time some academic offers up hard and fast rules against voice-over narration or a slow pace or reliance on wide shots or unlikable protagonists or any other in the long list of supposed cinematic no-nos, this movie is there to confound him. One of my most treasured.

  • Travis Crabtree

    I remember Ebert ‘fessing up to being wrong about “Unforgiven”. (he panned it, then said he was in a bad mood and it was actually good)

    I think Siskel did the same thing with “Apocalypse Now”.

  • Renfield

    HadHatHarry,

    You are 100% correct, sir.

    Outside of that…

    The scene where Redman is discovered as a military imposter seems like what Tarantino was going for during the underground pub bit in “Basterds” but never quite got there.

    “Barry Lyndon” is one of the greatest films of all time.

  • LexG

    *Masterpiece*, and certainly Kubrick’s most underrated… and Ryan O’Neal kills it in BL.

    And as for Kael… ugh… I know she has legions of dedicated disciples, but that whole “only see a movie once” shtick is so arbitrary, annoying and hopelessly pre-cable TV; Christ, if you’ve got Cinemax or FX, you can’t go three days without catching Dark Knight, the Bourne saga, or fucking Righteous Kill for the dozenth time by *accident*.

    Can you imagine a world where you only watched The Shining one time, or Apocalypse Now, or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or Halloween, or Star Wars? Imagine giving up on the thrill of a holiday Bond or Duke or Clint or Rocky marathon because Pauline fucking Kael laid down some prehistoric edict. Almost any Kubrick, Coen or Altman improves with each viewing, as they’re layered enough to reveal new perspectives every time.

    She may have been a brilliant critic but she was also one hell of a gasbag. Rewatchability is the key to a lasting personal favorite, and not every film is so cut-and-dry as to reveal itself 100% on the first theater viewing on opening night with a twitchy packed capacity crowd.

  • ZayTonday

    Only look at the Mona Lisa once!

  • Markj74

    Great post LexG, and spot on. Kubrick is that rare director where his films get better EVERY time you watch them, and they were pretty damn brilliant to begin with.

    Barry Lyndon would definitely take one of my Top 5 Films Of All Time places.

  • K. Bowen

    Great, great film. One of the ten best ever made.

  • NotImpressed1Yet

    They need to put this fucker on blu ray, like, yesterday.

  • Jack South P.I.

    Kael said she would never watch a movie more than once before she reviewed it, not that she would never watch a movie more than once in her life. Argue with the policy all you want but she loved movies as much as anyone and certainly had her own favorites that she would watch again and again.

  • Jack South P.I.

    f’ing html tags

  • Floyd Thursby

    “Almost any Kubrick, Coen or Altman improves with each viewing, as they’re layered enough to reveal new perspectives every time.”

    I loved MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, and 3 Women the firs time I saw them, but each seems less interesting and dated on subsequent viewings. Player and Gosford Park hold up, though.

    That said, I’m reading and enjoying the oral bio of Altman. He was one of a kind. Would make a fascinating character in a film.

  • Rich S.

    I love this quote from McCarthy’s piece:

    “True, my opinion was correct, but as my French friend and cinema ultraconnoisseur Pierre Rissient always says, ‘It is not enough that you like the right films — you must like them for the right reasons.'”

    If that doesn’t describe every self-proclaimed cinema snob on the internet, I don’t know what does.

  • Mr. Blue

    How is the most beautifully shot movie ever made not on blu-ray yet?

  • markj

    Great post LexG, and spot on. Kubrick is that rare director where his films get better EVERY time you watch them, and they were pretty damn brilliant to begin with.

    Barry Lyndon would definitely take one of my Top 5 Films Of All Time places.

  • Gogocrank

    Those older than me (I’m 34) fill me in: before the advent of home video/cable, back in the revival house era, after a movie like “Barry Lyndon” played, how hard would it have actually been to see it a second time? I can barely fathom decades of film all but unavailable beyond the whims of a few good programmers. These days, we’re downright spoiled.

  • Aidan MT4

    Kael only saw “Last Tango in Paris” once, for God’s sake, even after the ecstatic review. She claimed that the whole movie was in her head many years later. Her reasoning was that with movies first impressions and sensuous immediacy were everything, but there is more than a little bit of intellectual self-aggrandizement in her claim that she remembered everything about a movie. She may have been brilliant, but memory simply doesn’t work that way.

  • raygo

    Gogocrank, that is such an excellent question. It was definitely a “use it or lose it” period. Movies opened for their particular run, then closed. It seemed to me that some runs were open-ended. Sometimes the hits were brought out again at year end, or summertime, depending on schedule. There were many discount chains where you could always catch a film before it went away.

    The next available viewing would be the “network premier” … which were heavily advertised and subject to great debates about how much editing networks would impose of some films. Compared to today, it does seem like the dark ages. Still, with all the movies available to cable outlets, it’s funny how the same 75-100 seem in constant rotation.

    FYI … the opening of Barry Lyndon was (as I recall) much anticipated. There was more excitement about openings, almost like a theater event. Maybe not as anticipated as say Avatar, but people were definitely talking about movie openings more in those days.

  • pm123

    Truly a flawless film. Perfectly illustrates how to use voice over in a film. Don’t repeat the picture, but COMMENT on it! The unification of picture and sound are impeccable. Watch the synchronization between music and the clicking of Barry’s heels at the head of the scene where Barry goes in to report to Captain Potzdorf. Or the slow zoom wide shot of Captain Quinn’s troops parading on the field near the beginning. Look at the mountain the background. It explains what the entire scene is about – SEX! Unbelievable. And that’s the whole point – the flawless perfection on the surface is necessary to point out the seething maelstrom of chaos below the surface. Genius…

  • creepingmalaise

    Re: Barry Lyndon on blue-ray, check out this link:

    http://www.theauteurs.com/topics/4494

  • CitizenKanedforChewingGum

    An excellent film, they rarely make them like this anymore.

    Having said that…

    “The scene where Redman is discovered as a military imposter seems like what Tarantino was going for during the underground pub bit in “Basterds” but never quite got there.”

    Never quite got there? That scene is unbelievable (one of the two best in the entire film, along with the opening), and I honestly feel it compares favorably to BL’s similar scene in question. The raw suspense is tangible in the air, and Tarantino is somehow able to sustain that feeling — even ratcheting it up every couple minutes just when you thought it was all ratcheted out — for a solid 10-15 minutes.

    Master-fucking-ful.

  • Gordon27

    “Every time some academic offers up hard and fast rules against voice-over narration or a slow pace or reliance on wide shots or unlikable protagonists or any other in the long list of supposed cinematic no-nos”

    I thought there was nothing a film academic liked more than a slow pace.

  • crazynine

    But McCarthy isn’t saying what Wells says.

    Wells sees a movie, raves, then feels bad about it a few weeks later, then airbrushes his previous opinion out of his memory faster than any Stalinist protophotoshopper.

    What McCarthy writes about is *reflection*, after many years, on the true, enduring quality of a film.

    Three months and the peer pressure of a plunging Metacritic score is not the equal of watching a movie five, ten or twenty years later on DVD or late-night cable.

    Anyway… I love Barry Lyndon, but I didn’t first see it until about 10 or so years ago, well after its upswing in the critical memory. That said, the movie has flaws, chief among them it’s simply boring for very long stretches, in the way that most Kubrick films are. One can look at BL in isolation and think, “the film is as vacuous as its amoral anti-hero” and regard that as a genius perspective. Yet *plenty* of Kubricks films are similarly vacuous for long stretches of the film. Sometimes that works– it does in BL, and it builds a form of suspense in The Shining– but at other times, it fails (what justifiable structural reason is there for 2001 to be as languid as it is? The film as a whole is brilliant, but every scene in that film is far longer than it needs to be, and paced in that bizarre Kubrick cadence).

  • bmcintire

    The other Kubrick Blu-Ray I’d really like too see/have is PATHS OF GLORY. It’s not the most Kubrickian of his films (along with SPARTACUS), but my God it’s beautiful to watch.

    And it is sadly nowhere on the horizon.

  • lbeale

    I’ll tell you where some of us saw classic films before they were available on TV or home video – the Z Channel. Boy, do I miss that cineaste’s wet dream.

  • Mgmax, le Corbeau

    “Those older than me (I’m 34) fill me in: before the advent of home video/cable, back in the revival house era, after a movie like “Barry Lyndon” played, how hard would it have actually been to see it a second time?”

    A lot of different answers to that question. As far as 35mm goes, some movies came back regularly– I saw 2001 in theaters five or six times through the 70s and early 80s, and King Kong probably as many times. Midnight shows brought back all kinds of stuff– from the Marx Brothers to Full-fledged reissues were not uncommon– I remember frickin’ Birth of a Nation playing theatrically in Wichita, Kansas, around 1975. And depending on where you lived, there might be a repertory house which played double bills which changed every day or two– Notorious and Suspicion one day, 8-1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits the next day, a Three Stooges marathon the next.

    On the other hand, if a film wasn’t one of the name classics… it could disappear for decades. Nobody saw Citizen Kane for a decade after it was made; its reputation really came from when it started playing the college circuit in the 50s. That whole explosion of “pre-Code” movies that hit TCM and places in the 90s? Most of them had been seen by no one anywhere for 60 years, if they hadn’t been included in TV packages (as many 1929-32 films were not).

    So basically, you could see stuff if you kept an eye out for it… but you had to pounce on it when it came by, because you could go decades without another chance.

  • Gordon27

    “The other Kubrick Blu-Ray I’d really like too see/have is PATHS OF GLORY.”

    I saw a restoration of this within the last few years at the Film Forum; the picture looked beautiful, but the sound was incredibly bad. If that’s their best restoration, technology upgrades may make it seem worse than it really is.

  • Gordon27

    “what justifiable structural reason is there for 2001 to be as languid as it is?”

    Because space travel is booooooooooooring and he’s deliberately playing that side of it up because that’s the part sci-fi traditionally ignores, and he was trying to follow through on the “real science” type of science fiction.

  • BadHatHarry

    “I thought there was nothing a film academic liked more than a slow pace.”

    Maybe cineastes, but there are all kinds of academics. The screenwriting gurus like Syd Field and his many ilk are more who I was aiming at.

  • Ronald McFirbank

    “Those older than me (I’m 34) fill me in: before the advent of home video/cable, back in the revival house era, after a movie like “Barry Lyndon” played, how hard would it have actually been to see it a second time?”

    A lot of different answers to that question. As far as 35mm goes, some movies came back regularly– I saw 2001 in theaters five or six times through the 70s and early 80s, and King Kong probably as many times. Midnight shows brought back all kinds of stuff– from the Marx Brothers to Full-fledged reissues were not uncommon– I remember frickin’ Birth of a Nation playing theatrically in Wichita, Kansas, around 1975. And depending on where you lived, there might be a repertory house which played double bills which changed every day or two– Notorious and Suspicion one day, 8-1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits the next day, a Three Stooges marathon the next.

    On the other hand, if a film wasn’t one of the name classics… it could disappear for decades. Nobody saw Citizen Kane for a decade after it was made; its reputation really came from when it started playing the college circuit in the 50s. That whole explosion of “pre-Code” movies that hit TCM and places in the 90s? Most of them had been seen by no one anywhere for 60 years, if they hadn’t been included in TV packages (as many 1929-32 films were not).

    So basically, you could see stuff if you kept an eye out for it… but you had to pounce on it when it came by, because you could go decades without another chance.