blogathon, books, directors, Film Spotlight, movies, oscars

1975: Barry Lyndon

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Thanks to TOM  Tom and  MARK  who are hosting a mid-decade blogathon and allowing me to contribute. I selected the bewildering Stanley Kubrick film epic, Barry Lyndon, not because it was the easiest film to watch in 1975–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Film at the Oscars–but rather Barry Lyndon has had many a movie viewer scratching their heads and wondering what to say about it. When I think of Barry Lyndon, I think of wine lovingly created from Pinot noir grapes. To appreciate the film is an acquired taste that takes time and patience. In other words, when I watched it in my teens, I was bored. I still couldn’t appreciate it in my twenties or thirties. Now, I see the beauty, feel the sophistication, and marvel at the mastery of Stanley Kubrick.

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Won: Best Set Design, Costumes, Score, Cinematography; Nominated: Best Director, Film, Adapted Screenplay

Why It is Great 

If you are fond of period pieces, Kubrick showcases the European, eighteenth century class structure. For the protagonist Barry Lyndon, all that mattered was improving his station to the rank of gentleman by any means possible. It was this ambition to circulate among the gentry that propelled his actions and the plot. Barry Lyndon rises as an Irish nobody to rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. His time in the British and Prussian armies show the servitude of its soldiers. Scoundrels rob coaches and horsemen. Widows and single mothers wonder how best to feed their children. The poor are hunched over and exhausted. The rich with powdered wigs and beauty marks sit in opulent galleries bored or playing cards and gossiping. Kubrick’s subtlety for demonstrating class divisions by painting a cinematographic portrait is perfect. The costumes, their props, chandeliers, fountains, and manicured grounds are breathtaking.

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The film is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Kubrick stages and frames each shot with meticulous care. The beauty of the rolling hills of Ireland and England, the manorial estates, the duels, the military formations, the positioning of periphery people from each class is orchestrated. Now add the period music which is selected to enhance a transition or the mood of the scene. The viewer is privy to a ballet of poise and symmetry. I would not be surprised to learn Wes Anderson, who employs similar staging in his films, is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick. It is why I love Wes Anderson films.

The Narrator 

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Michael Hordern. He had the warm, buttery voice of the quintessential British gentleman. He was a character actor you might remember in Where Eagles Dare (1968) or as the Admiral in Gandhi (1982). His voice represented all things having to do with the British canon. I remember him in the 80s animated series of The Wind and the Willows as the Badger and the voice of The Wise Man in The Labyrinth. In Barry Lyndon, his voice had an interesting role in the film.

Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray's novel into the screenplay.
Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s novel into the screenplay.

The adapted screenplay neatly divides the story with the narrator telling us how to interpret events and how to feel about Barry Lyndon. This approach reduces Barry to a puppet of fate and the audience is distanced from his internal thoughts. The narration also conveys key information which feels invasive. Notice how the narrator’s relationship with Barry Lyndon changes from Act I to Act II. He introduces our protagonist like an uncle who knows too much and gives away too much. By the end of the second act, he refers to him as Barry, and the formality is gone. We have traveled along with Lyndon during his escapades and are exhausted as though we parented a juvenile delinquent and don’t know how much of the blame resides with us. The narrator mimics the stuffy verbiage of British literature from the 1800s while discussing events which occurred in the 1700s. It’s a Victorian tale in love with the Romantic period. In 1975, mainstream audiences passed it by for more modern tales like Shampoo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 

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Act II is more interesting than Act I because of the parallel construction of Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullington. Jealousy, betrayal, and revenge spark up dramatic tension. The saintly younger son, Bryan, brings out the best in Barry Lyndon while Bullington brings out the worst. There is moral ambiguity running through the story echoed by the narrator. Do you like Barry? Does Barry’s corrupted soul bring about his demise? Is a he a pawn of fate?

For me, the weakness of the film is the arm’s-length distance the viewer has with Barry Lyndon.  This distance is exemplified by the reversal of shots in the cinematography. Frequently, the shot begins as a close up and withdraws to the wide angle long shot and stays there. The upside would be to show Barry is lost in the big picture and unable to control his destiny. Clever. But the downside is that the distance keeps me disengaged. Perhaps it is the fault of Ryan O’Neill whose acting is wooden and his passive wife, Lady Lyndon, played by Marisa Berenson, is numb throughout? Maybe it’s because the film is 3 hours and 7 minutes long that has one looking for the ending before it happens? Epics are hard to watch. However, notice how the emotional peaks are connected around physical expressions varying from kissing, duels, whippings, fights, and bodily mutilations.

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Stanley Kubrick’s wish to film using natural light to create a pre-electric world had him searching for lenses that were fast enough to capture the candlelit interior shots. He found his solution at NASA and was able to authenticate the natural world of the 1700s. I respect him for that. You can read more about his lenses HERE.

Do you think Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s under appreciated masterpiece?

actors, directors, movies, oscars

Oscar Wins Trivia

Seems the trend lately at the Oscars is to share the love and pass out the golden boy to a variety of nominated films. When was the last sweep of awards for one film? I guessed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and looked at Wikipedia and IMDb for quick answers. Many award results I remembered, but some I did not know. Here are some Oscar wins trivia I pulled and thought I’d share.

There are only three films that have won 11 Academy Awards. 

Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 

There are only two films who received the most nominations (14) by a single film

All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) 

The largest sweep (winning awards in every nominated category)

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) won all 11 categories for which it was nominated: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Original Song, Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Makeup, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Visual Effects.

The most awards won by a male

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Walt Disney won 22 Oscars. He also won the most Oscars in one year, with four in 1954.

Most awards won by a female

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Edith Head won eight Oscars, all for Costume Design

Most awards won by an actress

Katherine Hepburn (4), Ingrid Bergman(3), Meryl Streep (3)

Most awards won by an actor 

Walter Brennan (3), Jack Nicholson (3),  Daniel Day-Lewis (3)

 

Can you guess how many Oscars these greats won? 

1. Billy Wilder

2. Francis Ford Coppola

3. John Williams

4. Woody Allen

5. Rick Baker

6. Coen Brothers

7. Henry Mancini

8. Robert DeNiro

9. Bette Davis

10. Alfred Hitchcock

Answers:  1. 6; 2. 5; 3. 5; 4. 4; 5. 7; 6. 4; 7. 4; 8. 2; 9. 2; 10. 0. 

Time to sit back, pop the cork to some bubbly, and see who wins.

actors, directors, movies

Voice-Overs in Film

“…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” -from Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman. It occurred to me many of my favorite movies have a common denominator. They contained excellent voice-overs. It is one reason I admire Martin Scorsese. If done correctly, voice-overs are an effective way to give a new layer to the character, accentuate the setting, thread plots which move forward and backward in time, and link the visual narrative with the auditory narrative. It helped define film noir

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There’s a danger with using voice-overs. Many bad films use an open narration to tell what should be shown instead. Or, when a long film needs to be edited, a voice-over bridges a gap. We see faster than we hear. With bad voice-overs, the pacing is affected because action is faster than verbal description. The visual has to slow down and “wait” for the oral description to catch up. When a film uses voice-overs, there should be a sensory balance between eyes and ears. Consider two classics with effective voice-overs. In Trainspotting, the punk-rock score, the revved up narration by “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) matches with the frenzy of a heroin user. In this case, the craziness of the exterior contrasts with a calmer interior narration. The opposite occurs in Goodfellas.  Character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) provides the inner trauma of his character through narration while the exterior world sees a hard mask. He shares the private world of the mob and the audience is privy to a subculture. By the time of Henry Hill’s devolution, we feel empathy. Scorsese just did this last year with The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, Martin Scorsese implements voice-overs in most all his movies.  The Age of Innocence contains a  favorite voice-over. The luscious language of Edith Wharton from her Pulitzer winning novel about the Gilded Age, for me, accentuates the beauty of the cinematography and the élite world of high society in New York City.

I respect filmmakers who challenge audiences by making us active participants. You’ve seen Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, and Orson Welles use the trope. As a genre, a characteristic of the Film Noir is the voice-over. The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard among fifty others made the voice-over famous.  If you would like to learn more about voice-overs, I recommend this four-minute video about Malick’s use of the voice-over.

The Coen Brothers love voice-overs. Which one is your favorite? The Big Lebowski? I found Réka Kassay, Levels of Narration in Coen Brothers Movies fascinating.

 

The most popular example is Morgan Freeman’s voice-over in Shawshenk Redemption. I have my favorites, but I’d be interested in knowing yours. What are a few of your favorite voice-overs?