Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Skuriels Countdown: #11 (tie)

Stanley Kubrick, 1975
[11 votes]

Two intertitles tell the tale:

TITLE: Part I. By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon.

TITLE: Part II. Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon.

“Before the first shot of Barry Lyndon hits the screen, we know what will happen by intermission. And immediately after intermission we learn, more or less, how the movie, and the life of our eponymous hero, will end: in misfortune and disaster.

“A still-underappreciated masterpiece, Barry Lyndon is a film about one man's (or, Everyman's) struggle to attain for himself and his heirs a station of security in life, to become the master of his fate, the captain of his soul.... The opening shot (after the Part I title) is a breathtakingly beautiful 18th-century landscape canvas in a static motion picture frame. Two small human silhouettes prepare to fight a duel. The narrator begins an account of Barry's father who, we are told, ‘no doubt ... would have made an eminent figure in his profession’ (gunfire; one ‘figger’ falls into the landscape) ‘... had he not been killed in a duel over the purchase of some horses.’ The narration, coupled with this awe-inspiring first image, sets our story firmly in the past -- and, more importantly, in the past tense. Film, after all, is a medium in which the recorded past is recreated in the present every time it is run through a projector. The immediacy of the images and the action onscreen is an illusion: This has all happened before, been recorded, and is now being played back before our eyes.

“The narration here acts something like those labyrinthine Steadicam tracking shots in The Shining: It may be guiding the characters' actions, deterministically pushing/pulling them through the course of their lives, or it may be merely following them around, but it is probably doing both at once. In that instant in which the figure representing Barry's father is felled even as the narrator announces his death, all distinctions between free will and predestination, between onscreen action and offscreen narration, are dissolved. The Shining's Jack Torrance has ‘always been the caretaker’ of the Overlook Hotel; like Jack, Barry is doomed to recreate the past in the present, reliving his life endlessly as if it were a film loop -- because it is.

“In this first shot, as in most of the shots in Part I, it is the landscape, rather than the people who inhabit it, that dominates the frame. Though man does not yet hold complete dominion over nature, he has certainly aestheticized it -- as we see later in a spectacular view of earth-as-vast-mosaic. Human beings are mere figures in a composition, elements that help to balance the frame so that it is pleasing to the eye. Which brings us to the most noticeable thing about the shot: It is composed. Its classical perfection calls attention to the aesthetic elegance of the scene over the natural beauty of the countryside; one marvels not so much at the landscape itself, but at the eye, the intelligence, that arranged it. (As Barry will say: ‘I love the use of the color blue by the artist.’)

“In order to maintain the detached, godlike stance of the narrator, the camera must not involve itself with the objects it observes. A zoom allows the camera to optically magnify the image while maintaining its distance. The camera's human subjects present themselves to the lenses as though they were in a picture frame, the subjects of an oil portrait. Barry Lyndon is a world in which every man/object has its place and nothing can be out of place. It is a world clamped tightly inside a rectangle. “ ~ Jim Emerson (adapted from his essay “Barry Lyndon and the Cosmic Wager”, 2004)

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