Judging by the initial rollout, Milwaukee Film’s reopening of the Oriental Theatre promises to be a ceaseless trip for lovers of current and classic cinema. Falling cleanly on the classic side is Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 epic character—or lack thereof—study, Barry Lyndon, screening Sunday, Aug. 19, at 6:15 p.m.
Barry Lyndon tells the story of an opportunistic, if not entirely savvy, young Irishman, played by Ryan O’Neal. Once Redmond Barry (later Redmond Barry Lyndon) is forced to flee his home following some local malfeasance, he spends the next three hours becoming: victim, soldier, spy, card sharp, cheat, enforcer, seducer, rake, fortune hunter, loving (if not careless) father, terrible step-father, wealthy, pompous, noble, wounded, and exiled back to his mother and Ireland. It’s a wild and lengthy ride well worth taking.
Kubrick uses deliberate pace and some wondrous cinematography and natural lighting (even delaying production to wait for a NASA-developed lens to capture scenes lit entirely by candlelight—that’s so Kubrick) to tell Barry’s 18th century tale of duels, chicanery, poor decisions, and opportunism—lost and gained and lost in two acts and 187 minutes. The film is adapted from an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.
Kubrick took some crap for the film’s pace and for casting O’Neal, who at the time was at the height of his powers as the non-ethnic alternative to Dustin Hoffman’s sensitive young man persona. When possible, Kubrick always chose to work the most popular actors of the day, and O’Neal was that guy in 1975. Critics at the time took aim at his performance for being emotionless and lacking depth, but for me, O’Neal is the perfect blank canvass/everyman for all the wonders and horrors set to befall him.
Filmworker is the true story of Leon Vitali, a long-time Kubrick collaborator and actor who stars in Barry Lyndon as our hero’s nemesis, Lord Bullingdon. Following his role in Barry Lyndon, Vitali turned his back on a promising acting career to remain by Kubrick’s side—serving as confidant, errand boy, problem solver, and fixer—until the director’s death in 1999. This documentary, directed by Tony Zierra, takes a look at the reasons why Vitali chose to suppress his own artistic dreams to help realize those of Kubrick.
Is Barry Lyndon my favorite Kubrick film? Yes. And for many of the same reason why Jackie Brown is my favorite Tarantino film—I don’t feel like I’m being winked at or taken for a tongue-in-cheek ride by a director too pleased with himself. Barry Lyndon stands solidly apart and alone from the rest of Kubrick’s work and can be enjoyed without reference to or familiarity with the Kubrick canon, which is part of why I love it. Buy the ticket and take this 35 mm trip.