Time is often kind to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s technical mastery is such that his works tend to age better than films of similar vintage, rarely seeming dated by contemporary standards; and those few which do show some signs of antiquity — such as Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, Spartacus, and Lolita — are among his earliest efforts, and were compromised by, alternately, inexperience, budget, censorship, and the artistic meddling of studios and producers. From Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb onward, Kubrick exercised an almost unprecedented level of control over every aspect of the planning, production, and presentation of his motion pictures, and the rewards of such efforts are apparent on the screen.
Kubrick was additionally a staggeringly intelligent autodidactic and avowed lover of silent film who fought ceaselessly to find new means of narrative expression within the medium of the cinema. He famously and reductively upheld Charlie Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein as the two extremes of cinematic form, the former “no style and all content,” and the latter “all style and no content.” He insisted that, “Obviously, if you can combine style and content, you have the best of all possible films,” an edict that Kubrick himself would work to realize throughout his own oeuvre. Since Kubrick was so heavily involved in every facet of production, this progression of cinematic form was never merely a matter of technical feat or narrative device; rather, what distinguishes Kubrick’s films from those of other directors past and present is the balletic interplay of all the diegetic and mimetic tools at the filmmaker’s disposal, recombining elements of performance, music, mise-en-scene, and montage in ways both subtle and daring to create new modes of filmic expression and active viewership.
Such a delicate alchemy can not be easily achieved, and Kubrick was infamous for his extensive pre-production work, his epic and almost always over-schedule shoots, and his marathon stretches in the editing room, sometimes — as was the case with both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining — tinkering with and shortening a film after its debut. Such perfectionism was frequently derided as indulgent, but it is precisely this level of care and craftsmanship that makes a Stanley Kubrick production so resilient; few films can stand up to the scrutiny of multiple viewings in the manner of Kubrick’s masterpieces, and fewer still can continue to blossom and reward the diligent viewer with new revelations after decades of explication. Little wonder, then, that Kubrick was himself a master chess player, nor that he was so fascinated by the great strategist Napoleon Bonaparte; no detail was so small as to be irrelevant under Kubrick’s watchful gaze.
It almost goes without saying that such an iconoclastic filmmaker was bound to confound expectations with each successive film; for Kubrick, however, this was compounded by his tendency to work within genres which themselves came weighted with expectations regarding both form and content. Kubrick made horror (The Shining), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), war (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Full Metal Jacket), and period films (Barry Lyndon), yet each one feels unmistakably Kubrickian. To say that he had no regard for the tenets and tropes of the genres in which he worked would be incorrect; rather, he had no sense of piety regarding them and strove to subvert audience expectations wherever possible.
Additionally, from 1956’s The Killing onward, all of Kubrick’s films were adaptations of novels. (2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably the exception, having been written, with Arthur C. Clarke, in tandem with Clarke’s novel.) This practice, of course, introduces yet another set of expectations, in that it is very reasonable to assume some degree of familiarity with the work on behalf of the audience. But as he did with the conventions of genre, Kubrick similarly pledged little allegiance to the works he adapted, often altering them significantly to suit his tastes. Stephen King remains to this day quite vociferous about the changes Kubrick made in adapting King’s best-selling novel The Shining for the screen, but perhaps the best example of Kubrick’s refashioning of source material is his adaptation of Peter George’s cold war thriller Red Alert, which he — with the help of satirist Terry Southern — drastically reconfigured into the classic black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Given these, and any number of other smaller factors too numerous to mention here, it was not uncommon for a Kubrick film to be met with mixed reviews upon release, only later to be reevaluated upon its own merits, free from the shackles of expectation and preconception. Of all of his films, perhaps the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned — and, to this day, the slowest to receive its recompense — is his 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Though Barry Lyndon won four of the seven Academy Awards for which it was nominated (Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Score; Kubrick was himself nominated, but lost, for Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay) as well as Best Director and Best Cinematography BAFTAs (as well as being nominated for Art Direction, Costume Design, and Best Film), reviews and box office were both lukewarm. Pauline Kael’s review in the December 29, 1975 issue of The New Yorker is perhaps the most commonly cited example of the film’s initial critical response, dismissing Barry Lyndon as a shallow “coffee-table movie” and Kubrick as a filmmaker who “isn’t taking pictures in order to make movies, he’s making movies in order to take pictures.”
Kael’s review is of particular interest because it addresses all of the attendant expectations of the picture: of Barry Lyndon as a period piece (“If you were to cut the jokes out of ‘Tom Jones’ and run it in slow motion, you’d have something very close to ‘Barry Lyndon.’), of Barry Lyndon as an adaptation (“Kubrick has taken a quick-witted story, full of vaudeville turns… and he’s controlled it so meticulously that he’s drained the blood out of it.”), and of Barry Lyndon within the Kubrick filmography (“[T]he film lacks the tensions and conflicting temperaments that energized some of his earlier work and gave it jazzy undercurrents…. There was more film art in his early ‘The Killing’ than there is in ‘Barry Lyndon.’). And yet all of the vanity and artifice that Kael highlights as being to the film’s detriment is, in fact, largely what makes the film a success. Kael points out that “there’s a discrepancy between what the characters are saying and the film’s air of consecration,” without making any attempt to understand why this may be. Kael, like many filmgoers, instinctively takes this to be a flaw, but Kubrick has loaded his film with many signifiers to explain why this is an intentional choice, and chief among them is his idiosyncratic use of a third person narrator and, particularly, the narrator’s relation to the enframement of the profilmic content.
Though Barry Lyndon’s narrator, voiced by Michael Hordern, possesses many characteristics of the third person omniscient narrator, he is not, in fact, an objective and impartial voice; nor is he truly omniscient. Rather, the narrator of Barry Lyndon is himself a character with what could be considered a bias towards certain eighteenth century modes of conduct of which Barry himself is rarely representative. His tone is often editorial, and he employs irony as well as disruptions of temporal linearity by means of the disclosure of future events to upset the audience’s relationship with the image and to introduce an elegiac sense of fatalism and predetermination which is not in evidence in the narrative discourse alone. As Mario Falsetto points out in Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, “[T]his impersonal narrator is, in fact, fairly individuated and endowed with many character traits… and whatever cues audiences normally use to ascertain a certain character’s truthfulness should be applied to him as well.”
Among the narrator’s most interesting traits is his seeming split allegiance to both the aristocratic ideals of the day and to his protagonist; for while it is true that much of the narrator’s editorializing involves outing Barry as a solipsistic, masquerading opportunist, so too does the narrator take steps to imply a sort of internal focalization on Barry’s behalf. As the titular protagonist, Ryan O’Neal spends much of the film straight-faced, allowing the narrator as well as the words and actions of those around him to define for the audience his interiority; this technique of performance brings to mind the Kuleshov effect, upon which the narrator is pleased to act and to bolster. In his book Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, Thomas Allen Nelson states that the narrator “has no access to the cinematic order of images and sounds of which his narration is but a small part,” but I find this argument problematic. Rather than existing in isolation, as though the image and soundtrack were employed to illustrate his tale, I believe the narrator works in tandem with the enframed image to feign an authority of character interiority which it does not in fact possess.