Barry Lyndon: The Shape of Things to Come

by Bilge Ebiri

When we consider how great our sorrows seem, and how small they are; how we think we shall die of grief, and how quickly we forget, I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves and our fickle-heartedness. For, after all, what business has Time to bring us consolation?
-- William Makepeace Thackeray, The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1)

The old Bowman [in 2001] in his bed in the Jupiter room, looking up at the monolith, calls to mind a statement by William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite"
-- Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (2)

The films of Stanley Kubrick meditate upon destiny, time, and the individual, portraying characters with limited perception who are at the mercy of fate but not aware of it. A Kubrickean protagonist -- David Bowman, Barry Lyndon, or Alex in A Clockwork Orange -- is definitely of his time, integrated, for better or for worse (and often for worse) into a society & setting that conditions his responses and 'feelings', sacrificing memory and perception. Kubrick's characters have no recollection of the past, and no awareness of the future. It is the disembodied voice so prevalent in his films -- the HAL 9000 computer or the narrator of Barry Lyndon -- that see several moves ahead and see destiny at work. These voices, however, eventually become characters themselves, at the mercy of another being, another force, one that may be identified with Kubrick's camera, or simply the spectator.

Kubrick is keenly aware of the person sitting in the audience, watching the film. A Clockwork Orange begins with Alex, looking straight at the camera, and as we pull back we see that he is sitting in the Korova Milk Bar, watching us watching him as he narrates his story for us. In other words, while Kubrick's narratives transgress centuries, leap into the future or the past, they are framed by the audience to which they are addressed. Therefore, Barry Lyndon is a film about the Twentieth Century watching the Eighteenth Century with narration provided by the Nineteenth Century, and this film lends itself well to an analysis with regards to Kubrick's work, for it presents many of his previous fascinations in more overt fashion -- and was filmed as a substitute for his dream project, a gargantuan epic on Napoleon that probably would have brought together every one of Kubrick's obsessions, themes, and interests[3].

Two key aspects of the film presented themselves as problematic to Barry Lyndon's critics upon its release[4], and indeed, they are its distinguishing characteristics: Kubrick's use of the slow reverse-zoom, which begins in a close-up of the events of the story and then then goes far back to reveal the figure, motionless and unknowable, dwarfed by the unchanging landscape or the elegant 18th Century decor, fixed as in a painting; and the elegant third-person narrator who often states the characters' fates before the action of the film comes around to it, thereby depriving the film of much surprise, and distancing the spectator. The combination of these techniques is precisely what sets Barry Lyndon apart from other films of its genre. It emerges as a further exploration by Kubrick of Blake's "doors of perception". Barry Lyndon is a film set in the past, but it is about the future, about destiny and prophecy, because it concerns itself with the impossibility of knowing the future, of knowing what fate has in store for us besides death. But the film does not operate wholly on this abstract level -- Kubrick creates a spatial correlative for the film's essentially temporal concerns.

2001's full title is 2001: A Space Odyssey; Kubrick makes, in the title, a very conscious connection between time (the year 2001) and space. In other words, it becomes a film about space as time, about what constitutes the future aesthetic. The spaces in 2001 become the experience of 2001: the film is drawn out, devoid of dramatic conflict, forcing one to enter the spaces portrayed, resulting in a film one has to live through. It ends, however, with the destruction of space, which is really what outer space is -- nothingness, pure time, where man is bound by nothing except his own mortality, which the astronaut Bowman seems to conquer at the very end. Barry Lyndon goes back in time and explore time as space. The great distance at which Kubrick's reverse-zooms end is really our distance from the 18th Century. And the narrator's removal from the unfolding of the story is an indication of our own removal from the story.

In much the same way A Clockwork Orange began with Alex watching us, Barry Lyndon begins with an extreme long shot of Barry's father in a duel, far off in the distance, a striking Irish landscape all around the characters (by no means coincidental), a tree at the left extending its own frame across the top of the image and, in the foreground, a snakelike stone wall extending towards us. The presence of this wall in the composition positions us, for it continues past the frame. Kubrick's striking use of perspective and viewer-position in this, his first shot of the film, immediately makes us aware of our placement in space in regard to the characters and the action.

It is important to state that the composition of the frame is by no means a purely aesthetic or coincidental choice; Kubrick started his career as a still photographer, the aspects of foregrounding, depth, subject distance, and viewer placement are all crucial issues in photography, as they are in all his films. Also, the very act of making a film requires a director's presence on a set, within the same reality as the characters and the actors playing them. Placing these characters so far away means that Kubrick and his camera and crew are also literally this far away from the unfolding story; it seems a remarkably strange position to put oneself in, if one tries to imagine the spatial dynamics of actually filming a scene like this, for Kubrick also does not cut into the scene with any closer shots -- this shot is all we have of this incident. It is also appropriate that, since this incident in the story is presented as mainly background information, i.e., occurring before the main story itself, that it be one of the (spatially) longest shots in the film. Time becomes space; Kubrick is presenting history to us as distance. Our removal in time is correlative to our removal in space within the film.

Kubrick's aesthetic in the composition of his shots in Barry Lyndon is one of very little movement, of a rigidity that resembles the arrangement of figures within a painting. Robert Phillip Kolker expands this idea to a discussion of the recreation of the past as ritual:

[Kubrick] is using a painterly aesthetic to set his characters within a design, to recreate the forms and formalities -- the rituals -- of the past as rituals and to keep the viewer continually aware of the external and internal rigidities of the images[5].

Thomas Nelson Allen also touches upon this subject when he states that "Kubrick's method of visual exposition delineates how the particular human content of one era becomes tragically lost in time and absorbed into the aesthetic distances of art."[6] Barry Lyndon recreates the empty vessels of the past -- painting, theatre, music, ceremony, ritual, even military formations -- to present a rich historical narrative, at the same time exposing those vessels to be empty and devoid of life. The film itself very consciously lacks a life of its own. Its candlelit interiors are full of rigid characters painted white like ghosts. These are images of the past, often resembling exhumed corpses. And when Kubrick pulls back to reveal his characters motionless within a landscape, or standing rigid (often mimicking a painting in the background which seems to be much larger than they are) he is presenting a dead world that exists in our minds only through its representations, its shadows.

At one point, Kubrick's distancing use of the slow reverse-zoom is undermined by the characters. It is during Brian Lyndon's funeral, when the camera slowly zooms back from the funeral procession which is, however, moving towards it. Therefore, though the camera is pulling back, the figures are getting closer and, consequently, larger. The pull-back always invariably ends with the figures dwarfed against the landscape, except for this one solitary instance, when it actually ends on a close-up of Barry and Lady Lyndon marching in the funeral profession. Of course, it is quite appropriate, since the landscape of Barry Lyndon is, in a figurative sense, one of death. The funeral procession, death, uncontainable sorrow -- the long shot can end on nothing but this. It is the morbid center of the film, and its dominant image. Many critic criticize the film for being too emotional or melodramatic, and not fitting in with the film's structure. But this is a narrow-minded view for, here in the grave, lies Barry Lyndon's soul.

The process of exhuming is not a process evident only in Barry Lyndon, however. The postmodern critic Frederic Jameson, discussing The Shining, makes a similar comparison between the pockets of history in the Overlook Hotel, peopled by ghosts who possess the mind of Jack Torrance. Jameson even draws an analogy between the genres of ghost story and historical novel:

...[The] undifferentiated sense of the presence and threat of history and the past as such is enough to reveal the generic kinship between the ghost story and that older genre with which and against which it so often constitutively defines itself, namely, the historical novel. What is the latter, indeed, if not an attempt to raise the dead, to stage a hallucinatory fantasmagoria in which the ghost of the vanished past once again meet in a costumed revel, surprised by the mortal eye of the contemporary spectator-voyeur?... The Shining may be read as Kubrick's meditation on the issues raised by his previous film and on that very impossibility of historical representation with which the achieved perfection of Barry Lyndon so dramatically and paradoxically confronts us.[7]

Barry Lyndon tells us that time has sucked the life out of the 18th century. Perhaps The Shining is a fantasy on the existence of that life, the same way it fantasizes the ability of an individual, the boy Danny, to tell the future and to transgress space, through ESP and telepathy. The ghost story materializes the unknowable, and it is only appropriate that Kubrick's ghost story, The Shining, materialize that which was unknowable in Barry Lyndon.

Important to this discussion of the unknowable, and of time as distance, is the nature of the slow zoom which Kubrick uses throughout the film. Most filmmakers who are interested in moving the camera and utilizing the tracking shot look down upon the zoom as a cheap and ineffective way of presenting the appearance of camera movement. Kubrick himself fits within this tradition, as his previous films, replete with tracking shots, demonstrate quite clearly. The zoom however also preserves the unity of space and composition. Again, the issue of the filmmaker's own distance from the material action of the story presents itself. While Kubrick may begin his shots with intimate details -- a shot of clasped hands, or of two guns being loaded -- he pulls away to reveal not only our distance from the action, but his own. He, too, is watching from afar, not even moving his camera. A telephoto lens will isolate the figure in focus from the world around him, and a wide-angle lens will give maximum depth, taking in the entire breadth of the landscape and the surroundings. A zoom connects the two, and provides a continuum between the personal world of the figure and the real world which encompasses him, and of which he is a part.

In close-up, Barry does not see the world around him; sure, he sees Nora Brady and John Quinn kissing, or the British army marching proudly, but he cannot perceive the depth or immensity of his surroundings -- which represents, for Kubrick, the depth or immensity of time and history. The human figure is dwarfed by time, the same way that he was dwarfed by space in 2001: A Space Odyssey. 'The Doors of Perception' are not open to the Kubrickean figure situated in history. As Kolker observes: Kubrick's films we learn more about a character from the way a character inhabits a particular space than (with the exception of Dr. Strangelove) from what the character says. Kubrick's is a cinema of habitations and rituals, of overwhelming spaces and intricate maneuvers, of the loss of human control, of defeat.[8]

The inability to perceive one's place in time or the universe, the fear of the unknown, of oblivion, are all linked to Kubrick's preoccupations in both life and films. His fondness for science-fiction may be a manifestation of not knowing what the future holds.[9] Kubrick himself will probably never know if the prophecies of 2001 or A Clockwork Orange will come true; his own mortality precedes any knowability of what the future holds. Therefore, these films are meticulously planned, imagined, and rationalized. Again, Kolker's comments prove useful:

2001 is not only a narrative of space travel but a way of seeing what space travel should look like.The film is a design for our imagination and a notion of modernity, creating the lineaments of a modern environment and enunciating the metamorphosis of human into machine. His cinema becomes the image of what we think this and other worlds should look like...[10]

Kubrick's fondness for chess also provides a key for his approach to his characters. Chess is a game of strategy, not luck; a game where one must anticipate the coming moves and the general shape of the future; to play chess is to dabble in prophecy, an important theme for Kubrick -- not just in his fondness for science-fiction, but also his interest in ESP, which attracted him to The Shining (1980). If one can know the future, then mortality has been transcended; death ceases to matter. In 2001, the aging astronaut Bowman, in the Jupiter room at the end of the film, sits at a table eating. He drops a glass; as he bends over to pick up the pieces, he sees himself, literally, much older, at his deathbed. The dropped glass becomes a sign of his impending death; because he is able to see this, the monolith finally opens itself up to him, and he is reborn as the Star Child, approaching Earth. Time and space cease to exist. Knowledge is oblivion. In the Jupiter room birth, life, and death all exist in one instance, in one room which holds both the future of eternity and the memory of the 18th century.

On the other end of the spectrum from the Star Child is the protagonist of Barry Lyndon, subject to the laws of destiny, helpless and unknowing, enveloped by the world around him (as opposed to the Star Child, who is presented in the concluding frames of 2001 as being as large, if not larger, than the Planet Earth itself). Central to this discussion, as well as any discussion of this film, is the narrator, the one figure about who critics of the film rarely agree.

The narration is taken almost word for word from Thackeray, with a key difference: Thackeray's novel is told from the first person point-of-view, and a very unreliable first person at that. The novel is one big lie; nothing that Barry Lyndon says is really to be trusted. It is a novel written in 1844, but it pretends to have been written in the late 18th (or early 19th) century. To that end, it uses the 18th Century forms of the picaresque novel (such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, the movie adaptation of which was compared to Barry Lyndon negatively by those who didn't know better) and the memoir (such as the popular Diary of Samuel Pepys). Though Thackeray does add a fiction 19th century editor of the text, 'George Savage Fitzboodle' (who inserts comments and footnote sporadically) it is still remarkable the extent to which the novel itself relies upon an awareness of its readership, the same way the film is aware of its spectators, to generate meaning. The novel is supposed to be an 18th century artifact, and its message is achieved through the combination of 19th century reader and 18th century book.

Kubrick's adaptation of the novel's first-person narrator to a highly distanced, emotionless third-person narrator leads to an important question, the answer to which holds the key to the understanding of the film's structure: Is the narrator to be trusted? Is he just another version of the unreliable 'liar' of Thackeray's novel? or is his cool and erudite detachment to be taken at face value? many critics, such as Mark Crispin Miller[11], have suggested that this narrator is unreliable, that his observations pretend to great truths but are undermined by the reality the images provide. Arguing against this approach, Sarah Kozloff suggests that the narrator is unreliable, but that his ironic musings serve to distance us from the narrative:

Although this narrator never openly destroys the film's dramatic illusion, all of his deliberate foreshadowing implies a certain self-consciousness. Omniscient, prescient, and ironical, the narrator drives a wedge between audience and events, and, through occasional remarks directly addressed to us, invites us to observe the story from his removed vantage point.[12]

Indeed, the narrator presents the story as if he were presenting an exhibit at an art show. He often tells us what will happen next in the story in general terms, adding "as you shall soon see," referring to our position as spectators. This distancing, however, still maintains the narrative integrity of the film. As Allan Speigel notes:

The primary function of the commentary...qualifies, challenges, 'mutes' the present tense condition of the visualized action; finally determines the status of the action as the ineffable, transient, and sometimes irregular inflection of lives already packaged by memory. If the action is affecting, it is so not in spite of the narrator, but precisely because of his presence, and if the perspective of the narrator is limited, so too is that of the action. Each contains insights denied the other; the action reveals the intimacies of the part, the narrator the ironies of the whole.[13]

Spiegel's observation seems to correspond with Kubrick's own statement that "the commentary creates the same dramatic effect as...the knowledge that the Titanic is doomed while you watch the carefree scenes of preparation and departure...Being told in advance of the impending disaster gives away surprise but creates suspense."[14] Many have noted the distancing provided by the narrator's telling us that Barry is doomed to die childless, at the same time showing him playing with his son. In fact, this scene is quite powerful precisely because of the narrator's comments (One could compare the death of Barry's son to the death of Scarlett's daughter in Gone with the Wind, a film which plays out the melodrama to its fullest extent and which might have been the film many of Kubrick's critics were expecting).

The narrator tells us that which Barry cannot see. He lifts one important perceptual block -- that of the immediate destiny of the story -- and privileges us to watch the unknowing characters at the mercy of this destiny. However, the narrator's reliability is by no means to be taken for granted, for he has important limitations. Which brings us again to the question of his curious detachment. While he fits into the film's dynamic of involvement and distance, his statements of 'great truths' at certain points in the film cannot possibly be overt statements of the film's message. The narrator is omniscient and reliable, but he is not a vocal correlative for our eyes. Thomas Allen Nelson correctly argues that this narrative is curiously incomplete, taking Spiegel's observations further:

Like those disembodied voices of objectivity in The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove, and like HAL in 2001, the narrator of Barry Lyndon knows something about time but nothing about space...His is the voice of reason and wit to be sure, a mixture of 18th century urbanity and Thackerayean bonhomie, but one confined within the temporal frame of the film...Like others in the film, his existential presence metaphorically turns to dust and is absorbed into an expressive film art which looks backward in time and outward toward the duration of cinematic space.[15]

In short, the narrator himself becomes a character in the film. Kozloff even goes so far as to say that "This voice is the kindly, yet incessantly ironic, narrator of Vanity Fair, surely this is what 'Thackeray' sounds like"[16] It appears Kubrick's displacement of the first-person point of view has yielded an altogether new, 19th century frame to the film, one that is alternately framed by the film itself.

The narrator/"Thackeray" is the voice of reason, morality, and kindliness, but the extremes of emotion implied by the mise-en-scene and the music are out of his province. Someone else is narrating this story, someone with less easy confidence and less sense of humor, someone more calculating, someone more willing to dignify these people and their sorrows, someone infinitely more passionate. Kubrick has said revealingly: "The most important parts of a film are the mysterious parts -- beyond the reach of reason and language." "Thackeray" is trustworthy, but he is not the image-maker.[17]

It is interesting to note, in light of these comments, the use of titles in the film. The first one, announcing "Part I -- By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon" appears during the opening credits; indeed, as an extension of the opening credits, before the sound of Handel's sarabande has given way to the narrative of the film. This is an unorthodox approach to the opening title of a film; it usually comes after the opening credits have finished, a "The Dawn of Man" in 2001 was announced well after the credits. Likewise, the announcement of the "Intermission" follows upon the narrator's voice fading out as he reads the obituary of Sir Charles Lyndon. The "Epilogue" of the film -- "It was in the reign of George the III that the above named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now" -- is taken from the opening chapter of the novel, yet the narrator does not speak it. This expression of man's mortality therefore seems to encompass this narrator as well.

Perhaps why so many find the narrator of Barry Lyndon unreliable is because of his anachronistic nature. The words used are Thackeray's. The narrator does not belong to the latter part of the 20th century, to the generations of 2001. At best, he belongs in 1844. Thus, the narration distances us not only by its very presence, but also by its specific nature. It is analogous to the foreground figure in a composition that also reveals our position as spectators. We 'watch' the narrator watching the story, the same way that today we might read Thackeray's novel about the 18th century. Thus, Kubrick's central concerns of space and narrative converge to form an aesthetic of time which leads from Redmond Barry straight to us. This 19th century narrator -- or "Thackeray", as Kozloff would have it -- emphasizes our spatial and temporal distance from the story by his own distance from the story. He is removed from the tale, and can foretell the end. In turn, we can foretell even his end. Thus, the privileged, powerful narrator is ironically undermined by his very own mortality. And if he, representative of destiny in so many ways, is susceptible to irony and mortality, then so are we. Like the science fiction films, Barry Lyndon too becomes a meditation on the creator's, and the spectator's, own mortality and impending doom. One day, we will all be "equal" to the narrator and to each other.


[1] William Makepeace Thackeray, The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.35-6

[2] Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p.124

[3] The 'dream projects' of great directors, realized or not, often indicate preoccupations which are key to the director's entire body of work. Kubrick discusses the Napoleon project at length in Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (New York: Anchor Press, 1970), pp.293-316

[4] As with any long-anticipated film by Kubrick, everybody had something to say about Barry Lyndon when it came out. A good sampling of critical opinion is provided by Film Review Digest Annual/1976 (New York: KTO Press, 1976), pp.20-25

[5] Kolker, p.143

[6] Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p.195

[7] Frederic Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp.90-93

[8] Kolker, p.82

[9] Besides the trilogy of 'science fiction' films (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange) that he made in the 60's and early 70's, Kubrick has begun work on a new science fiction project entitled AI, which concerns itself with artificial intelligence in a distant future in which the polar icecaps have melted and many great cities are underwater. Even this brief description implies the work of a director who is pondering every possible alternative for the future by contemplating all possible outcomes, as one would in a chess game, one of Kubrick's favorite pastimes. His obsession with the future continues, though it has been more than two decades since his last science fiction film.

[10] Kolker, p.79

[11] Mark Crispin Miller, "Barry Lyndon Reconsidered", Georgia Review 30, No.4 (Winter, 1976), pp.827-53. Kolker also toys with the notion of the unreliability of the narrator, but settles for a thesis which recognizes that the narrator is telling "another tale", and is sometimes not to be trusted.

[12] Sarah Kozloff, Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p.119

[13] Alan Spiegel, "Kubrick's Barry Lyndon", Salmagundi, Fall 1977, p.203

[14] Quoted in Michel Ciment, Kubrick, trans. by Gilbert Adair (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982), p.171

[15] Nelson, pp.170-1

[16] Kozloff, p.123

[17] Kozloff, p.125