While Robert Altman probes the corners of the frame, savouring every eccentric mannerism of each neglected bit-player, Stanley Kubrick commandeers an expedition in the opposite direction. Altman sniffs out the individual within the chaotic mass or yawning landscape. Kubrick will take that individual and lose him in the mass, abandon him in the landscape. His films remind us how small we are, and how human.
By 1980, Altman had made more films, and more truly great films, than Kubrick would manage in his entire forty-six-year movie career. But in the year that Easy Rider was released, Altman, who was forty-four, had yet to make even a moderate impression on cinema. Kubrick, on the other hand, was already a titan at forty-one, revered as much for the fastidiousness of his methods as for what those methods sporadically produced. He had followed the unhappy compromises of Spartacus by relocating to Britain in 1961. Penelope Houston observed that ‘he has kept himself apart from all worlds, appearing neither as an expatriate American director, nor as a resident British film-maker. From Lolita on, his films have been set in Kubrick country.’
No national cinema that counts among its practitioners the likes of Fritz Lang and Claus Detlev Sierck (aka Douglas Sirk), or the Vienna-born Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, can claim geographical purity. So the whereabouts of the Brooklyn-born Kubrick’s film sets and living quarters seems largely irrelevant. This was, after all, a decade in which non-Americans made two of the most influential and lauded American pictures. Would One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest have withdrawn so vehemently from hysteria and sensationalism without the humane guiding hand of Milos Forman? A different kind of enquiry can be levelled at Chinatown. We know now that the screenwriter, Robert Towne, smarted at the oppressive cruelty that Roman Polanski imposed on his narrative’s denouement. But without Polanski’s sense of doom and desolation, would that movie have emerged from history as anything more than a well-dressed B-movie? It has left an odour hanging about the American thriller, something like the smell in a back bedroom from which a corpse has been recently removed.
There are movies from which American cinema is still trying to recover – The Birth of a Nation, Sunset Boulevard, Blue Velvet. And for its dazzling audacity in staring evil right in the face, like a child determined to bare his pupils to the dull glare of a total eclipse, Chinatown should take its place in that list. It is tempting to label the picture refreshing. And it is refreshing – that much becomes obvious when contrasted with the sappy compromises of LA Confidential, a film that invites comparisons with Chinatown at its peril. But let’s plump instead for bracing. It’s the kind of picture that makes you want to be alive in a hundred years’ time, just to see what an as-yet-unborn generation of cinemagoers will make of the ghosts that it awakens.
Polanski, the European in America, and Kubrick, the American in Europe: both scrutinized the nature of the anti-hero who dominated 1970s cinema. Towne may have created the stylish, well-turned-out private eye Jake Gittes on paper, but it is hard to believe that any director other than Polanski could have amplified his vulnerability with so little regard for the comfort of the audience, or the niceties of genre. When Jake is abused on screen, it is an affront to us: he represents our eyes, our means of beating a path through the thicket of the movie’s immorality; and when he is rendered impotent we suffer the consequences. Just as it is significant that Martin Scorsese cast himself as a ghoul in his own movie Taxi Driver, so it seems impossible now that anyone else could have slit Jack Nicholson’s nose with quite the sadistic aplomb that Polanski mustered in his cameo in Chinatown. If Kubrick had forced himself to act, he might have continued in his film Barry Lyndon the tradition of director-as-tormentor by awarding himself the voice-over duties of the withering narrator whose every pronouncement, no matter how trivial, stymies the hero’s lunges at independence.
In the 1970s ‘Kubrick country’ only became more impregnable when Warner Bros guaranteed its ongoing financial commitment to the director’s work. The studio’s generosity might have been a cause for subsequent regret – on a par with the artistic decline that coincided with George Lucas’s commercial success – if during this period Kubrick had not released one of his two masterpieces (Barry Lyndon) and begun shooting the other (The Shining).
The first shot of his first picture of the 1970s, A Clockwork Orange (1971), takes the form of a protracted withdrawal. The camera presents us with the face of Alex (Malcolm McDowell). It might be portraiture, only we can see him breathing. Our primary point of focus in any close-up – the eyes – is immediately distorted by the presence on one eye of ostentatiously false lashes. The symmetry of the shot is therefore disrupted from the moment it has begun. Everything that follows will feel off-key, against nature somehow, as though in deference to the title, which refers to a human being whose capacity for free will has been eradicated. Faces are constantly distorted in sickening close-up: the clown masks, with their obscene Pinocchio noses, worn by Alex and his droogs; the gurning face of their victim, Mr Alexander (Patrick Magee), into whose mouth they stuff a ping-pong ball; and Alex, eyelids hoisted open during his course of aversion therapy.
These corruptions have been foreshadowed by that first shot, and the way the camera dollies backwards along the aisle of the Korova Milk Bar – a movement that feels as wrongheaded, as rude, as the petrified female mannequins that serve as footrests and furniture, or from whose breasts drugged milk is disgorged.
The nature of cinema is implicitly challenged in that camera’s tentative manoeuvre. Everything about this art form from the motion of the projector onwards promotes forward momentum, and anything that upsets that flow can create an air of uncertainty or foreboding. Our natural inclination as viewers is to gravitate toward the image on screen. Film vocabulary flatters us in this respect with conventions such as the zoom shot and the close-up. In Altman’s work, we see (and hear) more than other film-makers have ever revealed before; if we were any closer to the action, we would need to be credited as extras. The contrast with Kubrick is dazzling. Most of the camera movements in 1975’s Barry Lyndon, his only other work of the 1970s, are staged, like that opening shot in A Clockwork Orange, as cautious retreats. As you watch the picture, you can experience the sensation of slowly and relentlessly falling backwards.
Kubrick had originally planned to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey not with an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s futuristic parable, but with Napoleon. ‘I start from the premise that there has never been a great historical film,’ he said with characteristic boldness, blithely dismissing Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon in the process. ‘I don’t think anyone has ever successfully solved the problem of dealing in an interesting way with the historical information that has to be conveyed, and at the same time getting a sense of reality about the daily life of the characters.’
His diagnosis of the shortcomings of period cinema was astute, but the film-makers of the late 1960s and 1970s had already begun to address them. Along with Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller and Thieves Like Us, and Malick’s Days of Heaven, Kubrick provided in Barry Lyndon a coruscating example of how to render a historical narrative without recourse to the fusty clichés of tour-guide film-making – where emotional authenticity is overshadowed by admiring shots of heirlooms-on-loan and country manors rented by the day. In McCabe and Mrs Miller, when Altman showed two barflies discussing facial hair, that inconsequential scene felt like a minor revelation. No film-maker had so strongly suggested that people in the past behaved just as we do – that they might also talk about their hairdos, or the latest fashions. More than twenty years later, in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, it still seemed peculiar to see a character slouch idly on a bed with no regard for the regulation posture of the period genre. After all, the conventional idea of history is best epitomized by a line in Maverick in which a character refers to the ‘Old West’, as though the West was always Old, even in the days when it was young.
The performers in Barry Lyndon couldn’t be mistaken for the trussed-up clotheshorses of a Merchant–Ivory costume drama. Just as you could imagine Bowie and Keechie in Thieves Like Us reincarnated in some later era as daydreaming mallrats or couch potatoes, so the characters here have an external life not restricted to their period trappings. When a man leans in to kiss the wife who means no more to him than his paintings and carpets, the gesture still smarts – a loveless kiss is a loveless kiss in any period.
Kubrick’s Napoleon might never have gone into battle – the budget required was more than could realistically be provided by the major studios, each of which was well into its post-Easy Rider backlash against the spendthrift 1960s, and scarcely distracted from this frugality by the dismal takings of recent Napoleon movies. But lessons learned in that film’s preparation evidently enriched Barry Lyndon, which in its evocation of eighteenth-century life makes good on its director’s assertion that the epic and the prosaic must be afforded equal attention.
The film’s key line comes just before the British army is advancing on its French adversaries. ‘Though this encounter was not recorded in history books,’ purrs the narrator (Michael Hordern), ‘it was memorable enough for those who took part.’ In that throwaway observation lies the essence of the picture’s skilful negotiation between the vastness of historical hindsight and the frailty of immediacy – it’s a reminder, as if Kubrick’s anthropological approach required one, that the distance in centuries between our lives and those of the characters is not reflected in any corresponding emotional polarity. From the film’s conception, Kubrick keeps the audience at one remove, even going so far as to shift the narration from the title character – from whose perspective Thackeray’s source novel was written – to an unseen and sardonic commentator who alerts us to the significance of events that we can barely discern. The opening scene is a duel in which the figures are no more than blemishes on a landscape; it is the narrator who informs us that one of those men is the hero’s father. Likewise, the narrator also has to assure us that Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) has fallen in love with the effete Irish scallywag Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) because without that information we could not have guessed that such passion was even within the range of these bored and intractable people.
Hiring O’Neal to play Barry must count as Kubrick’s wickedest game of rib-the-Hollywood-heartthrob – at least until he cast Tom Cruise in the lead and out to sea in Eyes Wide Shut. (Kubrick had interviewed Steve Martin, his original choice for the Cruise role, back in 1979, when Martin’s sole contribution to cinema had been The Jerk. How astonishing that Kubrick glimpsed so early the emotional tensions in this gangly buffoon which would not be exploited by other directors – Lawrence Kasdan, David Mamet – for more than a decade.) O’Neal was never the most riveting of screen presences, his popularity deriving largely from a vacant befuddlement that could be adapted to screwball comedy (What’s Up, Doc?), innocuous tearjerker (Love Story) and not much else in between. He had found his fortune playing little-boy-lost. But there was something pampered about him too that was pertinent to Barry, who in one scene sits mutely at the dinner table while his cousin and mother argue about where he should be sent to escape the scandal of a duel in which he has apparently killed his opponent.
Throughout the rest of the picture, he displays no greater involvement in his own fate. Invited to rummage in his cousin’s cleavage to retrieve a ribbon, he has to be given a helping hand by his seducer. When highwaymen rob him shortly after he has fled his home, he looks born to the role of victim. ‘Mightn’t I be allowed to keep my horse?’ he meekly enquires, not quite grasping the etiquette of this particular transaction. Later, he will find himself in a duel with his own stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), and will again drastically misinterpret the requirements of the situation, this time with dire consequences.
With the appearance of Bullingdon, the film, and Barry’s life, acquire a sense of impending doom. As viewers, the mere sound of the name Bullingdon is like a promise of the conflict of which we have been starved. Barry has drifted from one episode to another as casually as he has assumed stolen regimentals to disguise himself as an officer, or slipped into the elaborate dandyish costume of his sponsor, the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee). He wants now to secure himself the title and collateral that his lowly upbringing and itinerant early adulthood have denied him, and to this end he marries the newly widowed Lady Lyndon. But this liaison brings him into close proximity with her son, Lord Bullingdon. Even as a child, Bullingdon is an affront to Barry. The boy’s face is impassive – but this is impassivity as defiance. From the moment we see Bullingdon, we know he’s trouble, thrillingly so. His prim coat is the colour of blood on a guillotine blade. When he grows up, his lips have swollen, presumably from all the years of biting on them as Barry thrashes him – another unconvincing lunge in the general direction of discipline, from which Barry emerges much the weaker party.
Barry’s downfall at the hands of Bullingdon is a fitting comeuppance for his lack of identity. We are never quite certain who Barry might be; he’s the original man-who-isn’t-there. And the price he pays is to return home at the end of the film in possession of less than he started out with; he’s half a leg and a considerable amount of pride poorer. In many ways, Barry is the perfect protagonist for the 1970s, a decade that tolerated like no other before it the fallible, the anti-heroes, the knights in tarnished armour. Clint Eastwood still spent much of the decade sleepwalking uninjured through storms of gunfire, while Burt Reynolds drove cars on two wheels under collapsing chimney stacks, and barely ruffled his moustache. But actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro provided an authentic alternative to the bombast of mainstream action heroes. It’s easy to see how Barry fits in with these lost or lacking souls. The unconventional climate of 1970s cinema lent itself to character studies that were not necessarily dedicated to seducing the audience – Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver providing the most extreme proof that audiences were willing to spend two hours in the company of someone whom they would cross the road at a demolition derby just to avoid.
Kubrick had a phrase for this breed of film: he called it a ‘Who Do You Root For Movie’. A Clockwork Orange doesn’t fall into that category: there is no one to root for but Alex, since all the other characters are ciphers, and the only element with any vitality is the magnificent set design, which suggests a series of showhomes for depraved emperors. Barry Lyndon is more complicated. There is no one to root for here. And the camera seems initially to be holding us back from the action, even as we long to sink our fingers into the painterly landscapes. But that detachment only makes the disruption of etiquette, when it comes, more shocking and resonant. Lord Bullingdon attacks Barry; Lady Lyndon attempts to poison herself; violent arguments break out between relatives and staff. The polite veneer that has cracked and splintered under the pressure of Barry and Lady Lyndon’s deathly marriage can no longer be maintained.
It’s not just in these more demonstrative scenes that the film’s thrilling physical vitality comes through. Those scenes festooned with candles, and shot with custom-made lenses to render more faithfully the candlelight, give the picture an unusually visceral charge. This is not a sterile situation, but one in which the actors’ very breaths affect the movement of light on their faces, as the flames around them flicker and dance.
Both Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange are experiments in manipulating form to contradict content. One works, the other doesn’t. Barry Lyndon uses the camera’s objectivity strategically, to draw us into a narrative that appears at first so remote as to be imperceptible to the eye, or the heart – until we realize that remoteness has been used to snare us. Not everyone was convinced. ‘I like Barry Lyndon,’ said Steven Spielberg, ‘but for me it was like going through the Prado without lunch.’ On the other hand, A Clockwork Orange enthusiastically solicits our identification with its protagonist, only for the painstaking rigour of its methods to jar uneasily with its incitements to freedom and spontaneity. That film warns, in its dispassionate way, of the abhorrent corruptions that take hold when man is denied fundamental liberty. But the movie itself has no stake in that commodity: there is no emotional sense of what precisely is being sacrificed in Alex’s abnegation, only an intellectual one.
Barry Lyndon offers a more intense demonstration of the same idea. Here is a man whose actions are rendered futile from the moment he is born by the presence of an omniscient and scornful narrator, whose very timbre undermines Barry’s autonomy. In maintaining control of the narration in A Clockwork Orange, Alex retains his own destiny and identity, which rather diminishes the threat posed to him by the reconditioning process that robs him of free will. Oddly, Barry Lyndon is a more forcefully convincing version of A Clockwork Orange than A Clockwork Orange ever manages to be. Here the oppressive force of economic status narrows the possibilities in Barry’s destiny, and as viewers we experience first-hand the horror of a life lived by predestination.
The final irony is that Barry Lyndon has gained a reputation for being listless and forbidding, when in fact it offers the sustained and torturous spectacle of one man’s gradual downfall, while A Clockwork Orange, one of the chilliest films ever made, was withdrawn from distribution in Britain by Kubrick after a spate of copycat attacks. No one was ever going to imitate Barry, of course. With his dogged pursuit of undeserved riches, his wilful capitulation to situations that confirm his own impotence, and his despair in the face of destiny, he is too much our worst nightmare already.