Barry Lyndon: a view from the History Project
The recent re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in a new print from the BFI, has been a triumph.
When Barry Lyndon first came out in 1975 it went off like a damp squib. Kubrick’s previous films – Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange – covered a range of themes and a variety of moods, but each in its own way kept the story moving along at a brisk canter. When it was known that Kubrick was working on a screenplay of Thackeray’s novel set in the eighteenth century, one obvious point of reference was Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s bawdy celebration of life and lust starring young Albert Finney. Of course, Kubrick was a very different filmmaker – but even so, the eighteenth century was all about frock-coats, oaths and wenches, wasn’t it?
Hmm. If 1975’s audience expected another lusty romp, it was disappointed. What it got was an early exercise in what we now know as ‘slow film’. And it didn’t like it.
I’ll come clean, I was part of that audience and I didn’t like it. I went along eagerly to see the new Kubrick film, having had my teenage mind blown by 2001 a few years earlier. But – like many others – I found it slow and long and couldn’t understand why Ryan O’Neal only had one expression. But seeing it again in 2016, with an extra 40 years of film-going under my belt, I loved it: beautifully designed, framed, and photographed; its pace just right; the performances – including O’Neal’s performance – exquisite; its baroque sound-track perfectly matched to its cool and ironic mood; its emotions locked down, smothered by style and poise.
Reviewing the details of the creative and technical team on Barry Lyndon has also reinforced my deep hostility to auteur theory. Some may think this absurd, seeing in Kubrick a classic case of a film Director driven by a powerful and sustained personal creative vision. But like any other Director, he could only hope to realise that vision by drawing on the creative input and technical expertise of many others; and the very process of drawing them in meant that those others were contributing to the vision and transforming it. And when those working relationships carry on from one project to the next, who is to say where creativity begins? Of course the Director is the person with whom the buck stops on a particular project, but the creative process itself is a broad stream with many tributaries.
So: on the Barry Lyndon crew we find Sound Recordist Michael (‘Mickey’) Hickey, who also worked with Kubrick on Lolita in 1962 and on 2001 in 1968. Michael was interviewed by the History Project in 1995 (no. 371) and a transcript is on the website.
In the Barry Lyndon Art Department we find Production Designer Ken Adam, who previously worked with Kubrick on Dr Strangelove in 1964. Ken – who died earlier this year - gave the History Project an interview (no. 416) which is on the website. The interview with his Art Department colleague Terry Ackland-Snow (no. 682) refers both to Terry’s role on Barry Lyndon, and to his working relationship with Ken. And we shouldn’t forget Roy Walker who served as Art Director on Barry Lyndon, and then stepped up to Production Designer for Kubrick’s The Shining in 1980, and Eyes Wide Shut in 1999.
In the Camera Department Cinematographer John Alcott, Operator Mike Molloy and Focus Puller Douglas (Doug) Milsome had all worked with Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange, but on Barry Lyndon they were at the sharp end of the technical challenge for which the film is most famous - shooting by candlelight. Kubrick was determined to recreate the visual feel of eighteenth century candle-lit interiors, and for this purpose he ordered a uniquely light-sensitive lens from NASA. To make this work required an extremely shallow depth of field, and Doug as Focus Puller had the job of working out how to deliver it. He had to invent an entirely new focus technique, which is still in use today. Doug went on to carve out a highly successful career as an Operator and Cinematographer.
Kubrick was an extraordinarily creative Director. But he could only achieve what he did through the contributions of others who were extraordinarily creative and skilled in their own domains. These relationships, sustained over many projects and many years, represent networks or matrices of shared imagination and invention, and this is what defines film as an art-form: its collective nature, its collective creativity. Barry Lyndon is a superb example of what it can achieve.
Thanks to Lucie Dutton and Tim Potter for their insights which I have shamelessly plagiarised and probably misrepresented.
You might also like to see:
Mark Kermode on Barry Lyndon at:
BFI videos on YouTube, about Barry Lyndon and Art:
And this BFI photographic tribute to Ken Adam: