Barry Lyndon

Along with The Domes, Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre is on my very short list (two) of the best places in town, so the company, Milwaukee Film, that runs the film festival, is taking on a great responsibility as caretaker, and I hope they are up for it. The only thing I care about more than movie theaters is diners, and I first arrived in Milwaukee about five years after the legendary Oriental Pharmacy Lunch Counter, next door, closed, but I never stop hearing about it; it's not even necessary to manufacture a slogan imploring you to “remember.” The Theatre has recently reopened after some renovations, most of them, I'm assuming, technical, but it was with some trepidation that I entered. “As long as they haven't made it look like a giant Apple Store,” remarked my date, which is funny, but stranger things have happened, and we're living in stranger times. My chief concern was the restroom situation, but it seems that that is still a work in progress, so I'm going to have to have faith that they will do the right thing(s). Like most Stanley Kubrick movies, Barry Lyndon (1975) is too long, but at least it has an intermission built in, which used to be quite natural for long movies (before the invention of the phone app that tells you best best place during a bloated movie to get up and pee). The intermission came not a moment too soon, and I was delighted to see the inside of what was once the ladies' room, upstairs—a pleasure that threatened to overtake the cinematic experience.

I got to thinking: I'm not sure if history will be kind to Stanley Kubrick, as the flaws in his movies seem to grow as time goes on. Dr. Strangelove (1964) might be the closest he's made to a perfect movie, and our culture, as it spirals toward extinguishing itself, seems to somewhat paradoxically demand more perfection at the same time it increasingly sucks. For me, it's the flaws that make not just the cinema interesting, but everything, but oh well. Kubrick is still all over those top 100 movie lists people make, but I'm guessing less and less—but then, those lists—if you need a cure for insomnia look at one made by, say, the AFI, and imagine having to endure a serious discussion about it. I'm not so in love with any of Kubrick's movies as much as I am with his entire oeuvre, and reexamining it—and the greatest pleasure with his movies, upon re-watching them, is the way you are likely to totally change your opinion of them. The documentary, Room 237, while stretched pretty thin, still contained enough to think about to make me re-appreciate The Shining (1980), even love it. There are two conspiracy myths you may have heard about Kubrick—one, that he worked on some fake version of the moon landing—which is likely, whether or not there was a real moon landing and his footage was ever used—and, two, that he made personal pornography, on the side. That one you can count on. I'm sure even Spielberg does that.

I don't need to point out how themes of, and interest in, pornography run through all of Kubrick's films, do I? Don't get carried away, I'm mostly referring to the broader definition, i.e., porn—that could include nature TV shows, or muscle cars, or food. It's no accident (as we know, there are no accidents in Kubrick movies) that the big hill in the background of an opening scene has a nipple on top of it. Much of the sex in this movie is stuff we've seen a lot, the contrast between raging horniness and repressed manners. But there's also the twisted, the unhealthy—and in this movie just imagining how itchy the wool must be against your skin, and the way everything must smell—I'm sure there's an audience for that. And then of course, the duels, and the floggings, and the really stupid battles—in general, man's stupidly inhumane interaction with his fellow man—I know this is a lot of people's thing. The nauseating perspective it gives us—how much better off we are now—and how much worse off—as we spiral toward oblivion.

This movie is also very, very funny, pretty much from start to finish, though sometimes the humor is a little more evident than others. You can kind of imagine Kubrick over there in jolly old England, enjoying Monty Python and Benny Hill, but thinking how much funnier they would be without a man in drag, screeching, riding a tricycle in fast-motion. I'm not sure how much the tone, the dry humor, the satire, comes from source material, William Makepeace Thackeray's 1844 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (I'm guessing a lot). I have not read Thackeray, and I'm probably not going to, and I don't recall having any conversations about Thackeray with anyone, and I'm not aware of his name being turned into an adjective, lately (though it could still happen, I guess). There is a voice-over narrator throughout the movie, giving us insight into what's going on, but mostly presenting a humorous counterpoint. I admit that this is the last of Kubrick's movies I watched, and only for the first time very recently—and my resistance had much to do with an aversion to three-cornered hats and Ryan O'Neal (the anti-Warren Oates). It was that Love Story (1970) thing—you have no idea how stifling a huge movie like that could be in a the early-seventies, in a small town with only two movies screens. Though I did love What's Up, Doc? (1972), you almost forget that Ryan O'Neal is in it. Maybe I just didn't have a sense of Kubrick, at that time (how could I?) and maybe Barry Lyndon didn't even come to our town.

Ultimately the movie is costume porn, candlelight porn, flintlock rifle porn, and endurance cinema porn, but all, if not totally wholesome, at least, to me, not gratuitous, and worthy of a date at the cinema. Popcorn and Raisinets helped with the endurance part, as did the glorious intermission! When Barry's leg was amputated it felt more symbolic than anything; I didn't even smell the cauterization or the antiseptic, but it did make me think about seeing a person with a limb missing on my way to the theater. But the reason I even noticed that, I think, is because I recently was trying to watch one of those new streaming TV series' that you're supposed to binge on (which I won't mention by name, not intending to condemn or promote it at this time) which I had to stop watching, declaring (to myself) that this is sick, irresponsible, gratuitous, and highly unpleasant pornography. That was the word that came to mind, but I'm not sure if it's the best word for something not meant to be sexually stimulating, but meant to grab the attention of the very sick culture we live in. I don't know, maybe I'm just old; after all, it used to be that we were barraged with death and mayhem imagery subliminally, everywhere from movies to advertising to children's books—so maybe just laying it out there is more honest. But I'm kind of afraid, also, that absolute honesty in society would consist of us wantonly beating each other over the heads with stone clubs. Let's be better than that.

Randy Russell 8.21.18