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Kubrick's ‘Barry Lyndon,’ a masterclass in bringing a filmmaker's vision to life (cinephiliabeyond.org)
102 points by walterbell on Feb 1, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

If you consider buying a Blu-Ray version of "Barry Lyndon" currently available, note that it has a wrong format. Apparently, the film was made in a 5:3 format which would, if transferred correctly to the current TV aspect ratio (16:9) leave black stripes to the left and the right of the picture. But it would be true to the original. And the only current offer unfortunately cuts off the upper and the lower part of the picture to "fill" the TV screen.

The apparent result is that, for example, the scene for which the filmmaker waited weeks before the sky "looks right" almost doesn't contain the sky anymore.

I know there are customers who just want the "full" picture even if nothing looks how it should (shorter people or missing parts of the content) but those who want to get what author made should probably wait for (hopefully) some later different edition, if it ever happens ("blah blah average customer etc"). But I guess the current format is a partial reason why those disc are untypically cheap. The real fans who want to own the film could care. Others don't want to watch it more than once and don't particularly even need to buy the disc.

Thanks. Worth for seeing the Kubrick's typography decisions for his 1975 letter (I know that he didn't decide anything just for that letter, but I'd still like to know what was that that produced such fonts?) and his explicit instructions regarding the subject.

As an example for everybody to evaluate if they consider left-out pixels significant for them, this "Barry Lyndon" snapshot is 16:9 (1280:720)


In that resolution, what's missing is "just" 72 pixels total above or under the picture. The difference would be that there's no "cut" of the stones of the fire.

On another snapshot


the foot that misses the sole would be whole.

Seem to be small differences. There are certainly enough films which were shoot with the intention not to project everything that's in the frame (that's why the mics are often "in frame" in "wrong" transfers -- the idea was that the last correction was during the projection, and there actually keeping everything is against the director's intention). But "Barry Lyndon" is exactly the movie that went to extraordinary lenghts for the photography aspect of it. Think about it: it's technically hugely inconvenient not using modern lights during shooting of the whole movie, but that was one of the major decisions of the director. The piece of the object cut off the photograph when not intended is the photographer's nightmare.

But I can really understand that people who wouldn't care honestly wouldn't.

By the way, the "exact" transfer to the TV HD would give 1800 instead of 1920 pixels wide image, that is, 60 pixels left and right would be black. Would some customers complain as "not wanting black pillars" too? Probably. But the fans?

Every time this film is mentioned, I'm reminded of the old fairly tale, the emperor's new clothes.

Everyone, absolutely everyone who has good taste and knows something about movie making seems to worship this film. Only those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent don't like it.

Let me then be the one to admit I'll be the stupid, incompetent one, but willing to learn. Why is this film brilliant? I found it unbearable. Half the story is told by an omniscient narrator (a device that simply doesn't work in a film), the story advances at a glacial pace, the protagonist is completely unlikable. Of course the backstory would feel somewhat pompous and dated, based on a 19th century book, but in my uninformed, incompetent opinion bringing this old fashioned feel unchanged to a 20th century medium didn't do either of them any favors.

Kubrick made a number of classics that have either aged very well or become a cherished document of the time when they were made. Can someone please explain to me why this movie belongs up there with the Shining, 2001 and Dr. Strangelove?

> Why is this film brilliant? I found it unbearable. Half the story is told by an omniscient narrator (a device that simply doesn't work in a film), the story advances at a glacial pace, the protagonist is completely unlikable. Of course the backstory would feel somewhat pompous and dated, based on a 19th century book, but in my uninformed, incompetent opinion bringing this old fashioned feel unchanged to a 20th century medium didn't do either of them any favors.

> Kubrick made a number of classics that have either aged very well or become a cherished document of the time when they were made. Can someone please explain to me why this movie belongs up there with the Shining, 2001 and Dr. Strangelove?

To be honest, I've repeatedly watched all the films you mention, and Barry Lyndon is by far my favorite. For me, it's the rare film that actually immerses you into a different historical era. Most "historical" productions take contemporary people and attitudes and put them into old costumes (for a particularly egregious example, watch an episode of The CW series "Reign"). Barry Lyndon actually takes you to a different age; and, you're correct, to our sensibilities it seems pompous and dated (to their sensibilities, we'd probably appear presumptuous and uncivilized). The movie does great justice to the Thackeray book - it brings it to life in its original form, instead of shoehorning it into modern sensibilities. On top of that the camera work, music etc. is just icing on the cake. I believe that allowing yourself to be engrossed by a film like Barry Lyndon, reaching the point where you understand the characters and can relate to their motivations, is a very rewarding experience, comparable in many ways to traveling to a strange but wonderful new country where people tick to much different rhythms.

I watched this film without any previous exposure to sentiments about it, or Kubrick. I chose to watch it based purely on the title. I still came to the conclusion that it is one of the greatest films ever made.

* The photography is singular, this is self-evident * The acting is outstanding

Complaints usually then come down to story and direction.

I interpret the direction as perfectly executing my understanding of Kubrick's intended impact: Contrast between character (developed through the story) and sentiment.

A sentiment engineered with all the available emotional tools:

* The tone of the narration * Slow pacing * Divine Music * Lavish Costume

All intended to convey the message - "Take this very seriously". Imparting a gravity to every word and action. Be it glory, or tragedy.

What then of the contrasting element - Character?

As you say - The protagonist is unlikable. This wasn't a mistake. He's a selfish, spineless, jerk, of no inherent merit, who raises himself to mediocre heights through questionable behaviour, morals, and company only to be struck down again. A parody of the Greek tragic form.

What does that leave us with? A comedy!

It's a simple proposition, a farcical contrast between story content, and story form. Told completely straight-faced and dry. In this light I find it to be one of the most original and daring pieces of cinematic story-telling I know of.

The punchline to the joke, however, seems to be that I've never found another person who shared this perspective, and most seem to take the the sentiment seriously and at face value... You seem like you might be someone who enjoys looking at it from this angle.

I haven't yet read or watched any reviews of this film or the book it was based on, and was surprised to see the film being discussed on Hacker News, so in the tradition of a good internet commenter, I'm writing this comment before having read the article.

I'll go ahead and read OP's link now and see if any of my ideas are vindicated :)

Extremely well put. I was going to say it shows humans as not heroes or villains but hypocrites, from the point of view of an amused god -- like Feynman once said of being put up in a super-fancy hotel with gold trimmings in the bathroom, as if something grand and marvelous took place there.

I watched Barry Lyndon with my dad and we both found it hilarious! I found myself rather shocked that people generally don't consider it to be a comedy. It follows the rule that all it takes to transform a tragedy into a comedy is the addition of a fool, in this case the main character.

The photography also happens to be awe-inspiring, though many people don't appreciate it because they're not used to looking at scenes filmed in natural light.

The film is brilliant because he managed to do things that no one was doing. He filmed scenes with only candle lighting using lenses made for NASA. He managed to get a movie that looked like a living painting, because of the lighting and the lenses. Then it also has that emotionless Kubrick acting. That brilliant emotionless acting mixed with the lighting was perfect for the painting look. I personally loved it just for it's theme song, which is pulled from a Schubert Trio, which is so unbelievably cool. Not a typical hollywood composed theme. He didn't alter the trio to fit the movie, he used the theme of that movement of the trio without editing. Of course it isn't the whole piece. It is an unusual movie in that it doesn't have the typical flow of a movie which makes it unusual to watch. Instead you are following this guy through his entire life, as he changes as a person. It's not a little date night romcom, it's a sit down and experience this film and think about it for days film. That flow may make it seem boring or mysteriously praised. But in the end it is a good as people say it is.

I believe the well known theme is taken from Handel, not Schubert.

It's Schubert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFjkIrRjZZU&t=15m50s Schubert Trio Op. 100 Second movt Andante con moto.

Correct, it's Handel's Sarabande.

I love a three of the films you just mentioned, but for different reasons. The thing all of these films have in common is that they are intensely and carefully constructed, and what I admire most in Kubrick is his ability to create singular worlds. I actually think that as a narrative story teller he is lacking, he just makes it work by having his characters act as if they are in some sort of trance.

I can understand why you wouldn't like Barry Lyndon: it is slow, and fixated on a very idiosyncratic corner of history/lit history. I think this comes down to a matter of personal taste, some people don't enjoy spending time with the characters and the places on screen here, and some people do.

With regards to 'omniscient narrator', I agree it is almost always ill suited to film, but for me in Barry Lyndon the world was so indebted to that of the novel, that the narrator didn't seem odd or out of place.

At the same time, I think anyone would be hard pressed to argue that the film isn't a landmark, technical achievement. I can't think of another film which looks like a moving 18th century painting. The film is also, consciously, epic, dealing with a wide spread of characters, locations and lives, fitting them into a framework which at the very least attempts to say something about 'the big things' (mortality, love, society etc etc). Even if it seems pretentious and vapid to some, it doesn't to others. It also feels singular (though so does all of Kubrick). I would be willing to bet you could take any frame and it would be recognizable out of context.

I actually think Barry Lyndon has aged better than 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, and maybe that's why it receives more love now than back when it was released. Barry Lyndon and the Shining don't have any special effects which look laughable in a modern context (men in ape costumes, psychedelic colours, falling against a greenscreen backdrop etc). 2001 and Dr. Strangelove are still immensely enjoyable, and valuable, and it's remarkable they haven't aged worse, but they still look like they were made when they were.

Sorry for being a pompous arse, I actually can really see where you're coming from, just trying to argue the other side :)

Oh that's interesting! I don't find the special effects in those movies laughable at all. In Dr. Strangelove they play only a minor role in the film, while I think in 2001 he cleverly worked around the technical limitations, and used a set and model design that still largely looks (60s style) futuristic, rather than dated.

Compare it with contemporary or slightly newer movies like Planet of the Apes, Barbarella, Logan's run. It's not a standard space opera with space battles, faster than light travel, alien empires and magic space gravity. Sure, the men in ape suits look a little naff, but then I don't see how else he could have done it. Claymation would have been worse, herding actual gorillas not an option.

I'm going to be a bit vague, but if you haven't seen the movie, don't read this.

Its an epic movie that takes you through a persons life. Its great because it plays with your emotions. The audience starts out rooting for him and, and least I was, get impressed when he succeeds. Then you experience his decline and get a feeling for how success changes him. He makes some bad decisions, but its easy to understand why. The mistakes start to pile up and he quickly becomes someone most people loathe and he becomes the antagonist in someone's story.

Lots of movies do similar things, but I thought Barry Lyndon was incredibly engrossing and it actually succeeds in this crazy character development that might feel trite in most cases. It was also shot extremely well and the film score is fantastic.

I've always thought Wolf of Wall Street as a modern day version of Barry Lyndon, but with more flash and less substance.

There Will Be Blood is my preferred postcedent.

Personally I found it remarkable for it's involved story, excellent cinematography, the classical music, the staging. His selection of classical performances was so enchanting and perfect for me. You could take stills from the movie and frame them, they're so well constructed and composed. Yes you could say the story was not as enthralling at times as the movies you mentioned, I found it dragged a bit, but Kubrick films are often very slow moving. https://stillsfrmfilms.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/barry-lyndon...

Haven't seen the movie, but I suspect from the comments that it's a cinematographic 'tour de force' with many technicalities which makes it a wonder among cinema initiates. It's probably like listening to some fusion-jazz-bebop improv: to the 'non-musician' it might just sound like noise, but musicians are in awe of the mastery of the instruments in such music.

  Every time this film is mentioned, I'm reminded of the old fairly tale, the
  emperor’s new clothes.
  Everyone, absolutely everyone who has good taste and knows something about movie
  making seems to worship this film. Only those who are unfit for their positions,
  stupid, or incompetent don't like it.

I haven’t seen Barry Lyndon, so I can’t agree with you or explain why it’s enjoyable as well as beautifully constructed. But not enjoying such a film is certainly no cause for contempt. There are lots and lots of things like this. Not everyone enjoys sitting for five hours of Siegfried. Mahler isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, no matter how educated their ear. And Gravity’s Rainbow... Well the HN discussion of the book provoked much the same type of discussion.

A lot of the social behaviour you seem to be lamenting are associated with the fact that many such works of art require a certain education and progressive experience to appreciate. Bebop just sounds “frenetic” to the ear that hadn’t been listening to Swing for a decade. Modal Jazz sounds ”pleasant but meandering” to the ear that hadn’t been listening to Bebop for a decade. And so forth.

But when you have the foundation in place, you appreciate the way Bebop broke from Swing, and Modal broke from Bebop. But without the foundation, you get nothing. So some people, being tribal and wanting to self identify through contempt for others, will measure your fitness for belonging to their club by whether you have the educated ear to appreciate Free Jazz, or some such.

It’s not that much different than looking down our noses at people who don’t appreciate the “obvious” brilliance of higher-kinded types and monads. Sometimes, people don’t appreciate them because they don’t have the education in place (whether formal or not). But sometimes, they have the education but it simply doesn’t “click.” There is taste and personal experience involved, not just an absolute standard of aesthetic appeal.

In my own case, I had trouble with appreciating the albums “In a Silent Way” and “Bitch’s Brew” when I first heard them, even though I was studying Jazz and thought I had the right stuff to get into them. I thought I understood intellectually what was going on, but nevertheless they didn’t speak to my heart.

I came back to them perhaps a decade after I first heard them, and as it happened, I began to feel them, not just listen to them. But that doesn’t happen to everyone. If it doesn’t, there is no need to beat someone up over it, but then again, it doesn’t mean that the work of art is a fraud, and that everyone is standing around a blank canvas marvelling at the brush strokes the artist chose not to employ.

In the end, a movie like Barry Lyndon fits the old quip:

  A “classic” is a book everyone wants to have read, but few want to read.
The people raving about it are the few that wanted to see it, saw it, and liked what they saw, while most of the world wants to have seen it. That’s no insult to anybody, so please don’t take offence.


p.s. This is a a whole ‘nother topic, but the expression “good taste” does not actually refer to taste that is good in some absolute sense. It is a term that refers to having taste in common with the upper classes of society at a particular time and place. Lots and lots of excellent and fine things were not “in good taste,” and many things in good taste are now thought of quite poorly. “Good taste” is a measure of fashion more than anything else.


This movie is like animated XVIII century paintings, for that reason alone it can be considered a masterpiece.

You have the right to not like the story, on my side I liked it very much.

I wish people on here wouldn't downvote just because they don't agree with an opinion.

I somewhat agree with you. I don't find Barry Lyndon to be in the class of the three films you list. I think it's a good film--and a tour de force with respect to cinematography and general production design--but may of the criticisms leveled at it when it first came out still apply.

I tried to phrase it in a way that wouldn't burn all my karma points all at once.

With regard to this movie, I simply don't know if I'm the innocent who cries out that the emperor is naked, or if I'm simply too incompetent and unfit to see it.

As I and others are saying in various ways, it's a remarkable achievement in many ways. However, as even Roger Ebert said at the time, "“Barry Lyndon” isn’t a great success, and it’s not a great entertainment, but it’s a great example of directorial vision: Kubrick saying he’s going to make this material function as an illustration of the way he sees the world." (Ebert still gave the movie a strong recommendation and generally upped his opinion over time.)

I personally enjoy Barry Lyndon overall--and this may well get me to watch it again--but I've been less inclined to re-view it than I have many other Kubrick films. (Honestly, I'm not really in a big hurry to rewatch 2001 either; it was also an impressive achievement when it came out but it shares the coldness and the very deliberate pacing of Barry Lyndon.)

I don't think it's at all irrational to say, meh, didn't enjoy it and don't want to see it again.

You understand Kubrick slowly. For me, the movie Eyes Wide Shut was very hard to grasp when it was released just before his death. I didn't like the movie, it was slow-moving and didn't tell any story to me. Ten years after a very painful divorce and lots of jealousy, I managed for some reason to watch the movie once more. I finally understood what's it all about. I finally really liked it.

Just give him time. Grow as a human, get older, live your life. And then at some point of your life, watch his movies again. There's a good chance you'll get them.

"Eyes Wide Shut" is probably Kubrick's most underrated movie. I still don't think I appreciate it fully, but it was the movie that really started me on appreciating Kubrick's movies, his visual languages, &c.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in that room, stoned and jealous. There are rumors, that Kubrick actually got real weed for them to get this scene to be authentic and perfect.

I had a very similar experience as you watching the movie "Hugo". Many reviewers said it was a great movie, personally I found it dull and wandering. I'm pretty convinced I am not the target audience.

Count me in as somebody with taste that knows something about film and finds this movie a waste of talent. The real Kubrick underrated masterworks are paths of glory and the killing.

I thought it a beautifully filmed movie. I didn't think that Ryan O'Neal was up to the job. He was a very handsome man, but mostly appeared to be dazed.

I couldn't get into it, but I have trouble with really anything set before the 20th century. The accents and the wigs and everything, I just hate it and find it boring.

So you believe people who say they like this movie are actually lying?

I don't think Kubrick needs any more mythologizing or celebrating, but dammit if Barry Lyndon isn't a ridiculously great piece of film-making. While I think his Napoleon film (which provided all the research for the Lyndon world-build) would have put every other historic pic to shame, I dare say it would have been as focused and understated as this remarkable film.

Barry Lyndon is probably an example of a film that has become admired over time. Although, to be fair, it was admired when it was released--a lot of people just didn't love it all that much. It was quite the technological tour de force with respect to the authenticity (e.g. shooting by candlelight) and cinematography but it was, with some justification, criticized for being a rather "cold" film, as Kubrick films tend to be.

The epilogue from this film really got me:

    It was in the reign of King George III
    That the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; 
    Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor
    They are all equal now

Yes. This gave me chills. It still does.

There are not so many movies in my life I want to watch for several times. Kubrick made eight of them. Barry Lyndon is my favorite.

For those of you budding Kubricks, you may even be able to recreate his amazing candlelight scenes (yes, no other artificial lighting was used) using Kubrick's specially made lenses. The f/0.7 prime lenses were originally made for NASA for the Apollo space program. They are now available for rent.


Or you could use a Sony a7S, which is perfectly capable of shooting films on normal lenses with no other lighting but candle light.

A significant portion of my short film "HOWTO: Demon Summoning" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZoiva3DfI8) was shot with nothing but candle light last year. Four tealights, to be exact.

We just used a regular f/1.4 50mm Contax/Yashica lens on the a7s body, running at 40,000 ISO or therabouts.

The footage was a bit noisy as it came out of the camera, not aided by my shooting in LOG format without exposing as high as I should have done, but once we ran it through the Neat Video noise filter plugin it looks great.

I wrote a bit about the process over here: http://www.strangecompany.org/lessons-i-learned-from-my-firs...

My first memory of real cinema. We learnt at school about how 18th century aristocrats lived, but to see it in vision via Barry Lyndon made the whole franchise seem as exuberant as our history teacher had said. Strangely, one of the slowest moving films I've seen, but it grips your attention with a vice. Worth watching.

This is a great read. The notion of "six kinds of light" is an important one for aspiring filmmakers to understand.

Is this new? I am not a fan of the recent trend of refusing to date posts. It seems like that is done to milk advertising, but it makes it impossible to know when something was written.

Such a brilliant, beautiful, and haunting film.

I think this is true, but that the beauty is meant to serve as a farcical contrast to the triviality and lack of meaning in Barry's story. The point was really driven home with the final scene of the story being accompanied by Handel's Sarabande, a work of monumental gravitas implying transcendent tragedy, when in reality Barry was a nobody, a jerk with no morals or conviction hardly deserving a second thought.

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