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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

Last month, the British film magazine Sight & Sound presented an entertaining feature on dream double bills, asking various writers to describe a provocative or fun hypothetical pairing of movies. It goes without saying that this inspired bloggers galore. I’ve never been particularly good at that kind of parlor game, though it’s always fun to play. Last week, however, I stumbled by chance upon a particularly interesting double feature. I had the opportunity to experience Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon for the first time and then, a few hours later, followed that up by seeing the new Brideshead Revisited feature.

Things They Have in Common, of Which There Are a Surprising Number
  • Both are set in the past and use the past as a subject. Although their settings are 150 years apart, they resemble each other more than Brideshead resembles our own time, especially in how class completely dominates interpersonal relations.
  • Both take relish in the spectacularly opulent use of castles and estates to signify wealth and impress the viewer.
  • Both are costume dramas. The costumes for Barry Lyndon are especially fancy, but great care has obviously been used in creating the post-Edwardian fashion of Brideshead.
  • Both use a voiceover. In Barry Lyndon, it’s a droll, sometimes ironic omniscient narrator, while in Brideshead Revisited, it’s the main character, Charles Ryder, looking back on his life.
  • Both are about strivers, men hoping to raise their class position. Both succeed by marrying much richer women. In neither case does it end well.
  • Both are about painting. Let’s start there.

Painting as an Excuse and as a Template

Charles Ryder is theoretically a painter. I say ‘theoretically’ because we almost never see him paint or even think of painting. In fact, he seems to be the least creative person in the entire movie. His occupation is merely a plot device (it’s how he meets his future wife and enters high society) and a marker of quality. Ah, he’s a painter, so he must be cultured and worthy of respect, even if he is only middle class. It also allows director Julian Jarrold to include a particularly fatuous speech that Ryder offers on why painting is superior to the simple "copies" of photography.

Unfortunately, a counter-example can be seen in the American release of Eyes Wide Shut, butchered after Kubrick’s death. To obscure the explicit sex scenes, the producers (with the encouragement of Tom Cruise) inserted ghostly black figures that completely ruin the visual form of certain sequences. — JRP

Though there are no painters in Barry Lyndon, the entire movie is obsessed with the form. Stanley Kubrick’s compositions have always been brilliant and fastidious, but Barry Lyndon is even more exact. Kubrick admittedly studied 18th-century paintings in preparation for shooting, and numerous compositions look like they could hang on the walls of the Louvre. Kubrick is particularly adept at including anonymous characters whose function is merely to balance out the composition.

Fortunately in Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s perfect eye matches with cinematographer John Alcott’s amazing use of natural light. The outdoor landscape shots often use magic hour lighting, while the exquisite interior sequences use candlelight or flood-lit windows, which combine with the compositions to foster a sense that you’re looking at a painting. Thematically, this creates a feeling of being stuck in time, of tranquility and also immobility. While the protagonist may attempt to leap forward in status, the mise en scene is always undercutting his progress.

To Zoom or Not to Zoom

I saw these two films a couple days after reading my partner in crime’s provocative and enormously stimulating Zoom article, in which he actually mentions Barry Lyndon’s use of the zoom lens. Primed, I couldn’t help but notice Kubrick’s extensive use of the technique. As Scorsese notes, it flattens out the image, making it seem like an 18th century painting, obviously an intentional complement to other aspects of the film.

It’s interesting that Kubrick and Alcott rely much more on zooming out than zooming in. Often a shot will begin by focusing on a particular person or pair of people. Then after we’ve watched that for a few moments (or longer), the shot zooms out--sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly--and we’re able to see the larger context. What seems like the beginning of a war is revealed to be merely a military parade designed to entertain the upper crust. Barry Lyndon staring into space off a bridge becomes even more lonely when the camera zooms back to highlight his isolation.

In unfortunate contrast, Brideshead Revisited’s most noticeable use of the zoom is also the most cliched. During the aforementioned speech that Ryder gives on painting and photography, the shot starts off at medium length and then slowly zooms in on actor Matthew Goode’s face. This embarrassingly common technique is usually used to cue the audience that they should pay attention, that this is a critical moment in the story, and so it is here. By ending with a close-up on our protagonist’s face, we’re supposed to empathize with him and see him as especially wise. It is all too ironic that a speech on how painting is superior to the copies of photography should use a widely-copied and banal cinematographic technique.

Barry Lyndon’s most interesting zoom-in is of a different order altogether. Robert Davis highlights the fact that “the zoom has no counterpart in the natural world,” and he’s mostly right. But Kubrick offers a stunning exception. Early in the movie’s second part, Barry Lyndon’s wife catches him with another woman. At first, she (and we, through a point-of-view shot) sees him off in the distance across a pond. Then as she recognizes who he is and whom he’s with, the camera lens quickly and aggressively zooms in, mimicking our ability to focus on something a far ways off that catches our attention. The rapid nature of the zoom not only focuses our gaze (akin to D.W. Griffith’s irises that Rob mentions), it more importantly embodies the shock and horror that Lady Lyndon experiences. The empathy created by the point-of-view shot is intensified by the rapid zoom.

In Focus and Out and Both

Brideshead Revisited has its own share of beauty, though most of that comes from its use of Castle Howard rather than any creative direction or cinematography. What’s particularly striking about the latter is cinematographer Jess Hall’s almost total reliance on shallow focus photography. This is combined with a preponderance of close-ups and medium close-ups, so that much of the film revolves around people speaking and reacting to those conversations.

This is not unusual in contemporary movies, but it stands in stark contrast to Kubrick’s wide-ranging style. To be fair, Barry Lyndon also enjoys cutaway shots to breathtaking views of Castle Howard (maybe a few too many). But Kubrick mixes up his approach, often cutting in the same sequence from a long shot that encapsulates the entire scene to medium shots positioning two people in opposition and then to close-ups. The relative rarity of the close-ups gives them a much greater power when Kubrick utilizes them, and his longer shots show more clearly the interpersonal relationships of the characters. What he rarely uses is shallow focus. Even when he draws in tight on someone, we can usually see what’s behind that character: the setting, another person, a painting. In comparison, Brideshead looks unfortunately flabby in relying so much on the lazy close-up/shallow-focus pairing.

The Order is Important in These Things

Watching Brideshead Revisited after Barry Lyndon is not terribly fair to the former. Would I have noticed so many of its flaws if I hadn’t been so stimulated to the act of seeing by Barry Lyndon? Probably not. One of the glories of watching Kubrick (and any great director) is that your eye becomes more perceptive, your mind more sensitive to the possibilities of cinema. Your whole being is more engaged. Follow that up by watching something typical, and you can’t help but be let down.

There were other deficiencies of Brideshead that seem particularly painful in light of Barry Lyndon. It is safe to say that Kubrick never even thought of having a “developing friendship” montage, much less used one. Whereas Brideshead has an unfortunate sequence in which the growing relationship of two young men is shown with a series of shots involving laughing, wine drinking, and shenanigans. When Kubrick utilizes quick cuts, it’s often to startle the audience. A quiet moment of Barry Lyndon with his baby suddenly cuts to Barry in the midst of an orgy and then just as quickly to his wife with her older son and the baby. In a brief trio of shots, Kubrick establishes the relationship between Lyndon and his family. It’s audacious and pointed, two adjectives I wouldn’t think of using to describe Brideshead.

Still, not everything in Brideshead Revisited fails to measure up. It has the brilliant Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain. Her delivery of the line “Don’t be vulgar. Vulgar is not the same as funny” is so withering that I burst out laughing and have been quoting it to friends ever since. Some people may be fans of Ryan O’Neal’s empty performance in Barry Lyndon, but I’m not one of them. And Brideshead moves its story along with the pace and dignity we expect of an arthouse costume drama. Those enamored of such things won't be disappointed, unless they make the mistake of seeing Barry Lyndon first.

5 Responses to “Barry Lyndon/Brideshead Revisited: A Double Feature”

  1. Robert:

    This is a small point and it doesn't pertain to either of the principal movies in this post -- and yes, BARRY LYNDON puts BRIDESHEAD REVISITED to shame formally (though I'd be curious how you'd compare LYNDON to the Granada series, which, while obviously a TV show, offsets that directorial functionality by being a comprehensive adaptation, which BARRY LYNDON is not and cannot be).

    Anyhoo ... I question your insert box about EYES WIDE SHUT.

    I would argue that these strategic black shapes are both artistically effective and in keeping with the movie's theme. After all, the whole movie is one long exercise in coitus interruptus. It starts with Nicole nekkid, ends with the word "fuck" -- and in between ... nothing. Almost. (The camera discreetly looks away at "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," instead regarding Kidman regarding herself in the mirror.)

    At every moment that Cruise is ready to give in to his lesser nature or take revenge on the wife who committed adultery in her heart with the Navy guy, he is somehow interrupted at the moment of truth -- standing over the corpse, at the orgy until the butler shows, at the orgy before all standing in Judgment until the Sacrificial Lamb offers Herself in Atonement, hiring Vinessa Shaw, being offered Sobieski. Even the on-first-viewing-most-inexplicable scene (the Yalies on the street calling Cruise a fag for no apparent reason) involves Cruise being seen in sexual terms. (The whole movie is actually really funny if you look at it in the right spirit.)

    But no ... EYES WIDE SHUT is exactly about frustration at the key moment of sexual sin. It's not about compositional perfection at all. I could even argue that those black shapes strategically deployed to get in the way of "the good bits" work precisely BECAUSE they violate compositional integrity and seem unmotivated. They are not less unmotivated than Nicole Kidman's 3am phone calls while munching on chocolate cookies or whatever it was.

    In contrast, BARRY LYNDON is very much about appearance, about social standing, about formalisms -- in a word about "posing." In that movie, compositional integrity, placing in the frame and placing in the world, matter enormously. In EYES WIDE SHUT, not at all.

  2. Robert Davis says:

    I'm the other Robert, but I have to chime in to say that I like that reading, Victor. One other small (very small) point is that not all of the alterations are "black figures" or "black shapes." Some are attractive, bare, female backsides. Here's a side-by-side comparison of stills [NOTE: the page linked to contains nudity]

    Regardless of whether the alteration was warranted, I like the idea of taking it as is and reading the film accordingly.

    It may be important to distinguish between the character's thwarted efforts and the audience's. Unlike those of us sitting in the theater, Tom does get to be with Nicole at the mirror and does get to walk around the baroque figures. It's the audience who is held at bay during those scenes. On the other hand, the calls from Nicole at awkward moments interrupt both character and viewer. The feelings of frustration in the theater were obvious to someone who saw the movie with a multiplex crowd prepared for something entirely different from what Kubrick served up.

    The film (and the scene with the Yalies) is also an interesting take on Cruise's on-screen persona -- as seen in a dozen movies -- when compared to facts and rumors about his personal life. That Cruise as a co-producer may have been involved in OK'ing the digital alterations for the US release, as J. Robert says, plays nicely with the general perception of him as a guarded, passionless, sexless sex symbol. (What Cruise is really like, I have no idea, and I don't mean to speculate. I'm only referring to his image as a movie star and celebrity. It runs through the movie, just one thread of many.)

  3. Robert D.:

    And see ... those very reactions from the multiplex audiences of 1999 are exactly part of why I think both that Stanley Kubrick is a genius and that the alterations were, if not done by him, might well have been and are certainly in his spirit.

    He was a more commercially savvy director than I think he's given credit for -- why else even hire Tom Cruise at all and a married-in-real-life couple? Even before his death, the "sexiest movie of all time" hype and "will we see Tom and Nicole actually do the deed onscreen" rumors -- it was out there. He knew that EYES WIDE SHUT would be consumed as voyeurism, at least early on, and he had to have long made the decision to deny the audience the pleasures of pornography because it's so woven into the film everywhere. So I'm not so sure that in this case, you can separate audience pleasure from characters' pleasure. A few digital figurines that deny audience pleasure also, whatever the subjective motivations of Cruise and Warners, can hardly be violations. To be honest, on first viewing, and when I was primed by all the talk of "artistic desecration," I didn't even notice most of them.

    And what happened to the film at the box office was inevitable -- boffo first week or two based on star power and hype, and then a crash and burn when word gets out that it's slow, meditative, not sexy, and kinda ludicrous (and it is ludicrous if you're looking for naturalism as audiences tend to, or for a turn-on as this audience was primed for).

    Obviously the history is undeniable -- the black shadows and figurines were added after his death by Cruise and Warners because of concerns with the US ratings board. They were not added in Europe because such concerns didn't come up. There's no way to know what Stanley Kubrick would have done had he been faced with a US ratings fight while alive in the summer of 1999. But he was not an Artiste Crusading Against The Philistines type and wasn't insistent on being "cutting-edge" in the cheap ways popular in our time. He never insisted on a movie stronger than R in his films from BARRY LYNDON on, which is to say, in the time during which X was not a viable rating for a nonporn film. And not because he had no power over Warners. He even authorized cuts to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in later U.S. releases after the MPAA gave it an X. He also was willing to go into and edit THE SHINING and 2001 after early commercial screenings (though in those cases, it was to tighten slack pacing).

    If he had been alive in May and June of 1999, maybe he would have used the black shapes or nude digital-dolls; maybe not. But I think we can certainly say he would have found **some way** to accommodate the MPAA and get EYES WIDE SHUT rated R.

  4. Robert Davis says:

    Yeah, I think he was contractually obligated to turn in an R-rated film, and certainly I'd rather have the digital stand-ins than a chopped up tracking shot. The film is practically defined by its tracking (actually steadicam) shots. And, true, he was a clever marketeer. He cut the trailers himself, didn't he?

    Some of the noise about the alterations was made by critics (notably Roger Ebert) who saw an unfinished version of the alterations and spoke up loudly about it. He says, "In rough-draft form, this masking evoked Austin Powers' famous genital hide-and-seek sequence. I have now seen the polished version of the technique, and will say it is done well, even though it should not have been done at all." Ebert, along with Siskel back in the day, was often on the lookout for an example that bolstered his argument for a workable adult rating, so his comments about Eyes Wide Shut are only partially about Kubrick and artist license; they're also one salvo in a larger battle.

    Anyway, I agree with you in general. I've never been much bothered by the dolls, although I prefer the film without them. Just knowing they exist in some prints is enough to fire the synapses along the interruptus line.

  5. Victor, I also like your reading regarding the film's theme of sexual sin and frustration. I hadn't concentrated on that before, but it makes sense. I'd have to see the film again to see how that works out with the related themes of honesty and hiding (which is what I wrote about so many years ago).

    Still, I have to disagree that Kubrick would've intentionally violated compositional integrity if he had been alive to make the decisions himself. This might be a messier movie than 2001 or Barry Lyndon, but it's no less formally rigorous. As I wrote back when:

    Though Kubrick's direction isn't as startling here as in his other, more flamboyant pictures, it's no less assured. Eyes Wide Shut could be used as a textbook of camera placement and framing. Notice when Bill and the prostitute kiss where each is in relation to the frame. Notice where Cruise and Kidman stand in relation to one another and to the empty space around them. Notice the vast distance between Cruise and Pollack in their closing confrontation.

    Kubrick was always meticulous about such things, even in really messy movies like Strangelove, and the ghostly figures that we're left with feel arbitrary. And, yes, they ruin the compositions. I agree that Kubrick, being an exceedingly smart marketer of his own work, would've had to do something to get an R-rating, but I'm pretty sure he would've found a more elegant solution than the butchering American audiences were left with.

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