Blindspotting #11 – Barry Lyndon and Doctor Zhivago
Though I came up short by one post for the year – except for November, I’ve posted all my Blindspotting posts monthly at my own blog before pulling them to RowThree in batches – I’m happy with the 22 first time watches of classics I managed to squeeze in this year. I plan to keep up the two per monthly post strategy in 2013, if only because it enables some interesting comparisons between films. I hope to publish my proposed set (complete with pairings for each month) early in the new year.
If there’s one thing we likely all have in common when comparing lists of “major” films we haven’t seen, it’s that we have a couple of those Epics missing. You know the ones I mean: the 3+ hour epic love stories, epic period pieces and epic historical dramas that tend to be a bit foreboding. You’ll usually find one of them among our top movies of all time, but there’s a stack of others whose weighty nature and lengthy run times make viewing them seem like, well, “homework”. In many cases they turn out to be a joy to behold – quickly engaging, filled with characters of depth, chock full of interesting turns – and even feel much shorter than they really are. But when you hit one that doesn’t connect with you…Well, let’s just say that time crawls at around the same pace as it does when you’re in the dentist chair. And even though two great filmmakers were at the helm for this month’s choices, that was my concern with both films – two that have been sitting on my shelf for much, much longer than I’m comfortable admitting.
I will admit it’s an odd reaction for me to have to a Kubrick film since I’ve loved everything else he’s done (short of his first features before the great The Killing). But Barry Lyndon struck me as a different beast and one whose apparently slow meandering nature might wear thin over its 184 minutes. Aside from knowing it was the tale of a farm-raised young Irish man who finds his way into the aristocracy of 18th century Britain, I knew nothing of the story. So the changing fortunes of Barry (Part 1 of the film is entitled: By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon) throughout were unexpected and kept me engaged. Even more surprising was that the film is really somewhat of a comedy. Not laugh out loud by any stretch, but the ups and downs of Barry’s life after he leaves his village (along with many of the narrator’s comments) brings an almost farcical tone to much of the film. Though Barry has a promising life ahead of him (born to a genteel family and bred to be a lawyer), his father is killed in a duel. While his mother stays a widow, Barry struggles to deal with his first love Nora – she tries to get him to be more assertive by hiding a ribbon on her person, but he seems too meek to search her for it. After she shows interest in a British army captain (who would relieve her family of its debt), Barry challenges him to a duel and is forced to leave town afterwards. He’s actually a bit of a selfish dim-witted putz when you get right down to it and as he begins his travels, there’s a moment where I wondered how long I could stay invested with that kind of character. Fortunately, as mentioned above, fate seems to have a push/pull battle with Barry as it keeps changing things up on him – he swears he’ll remain a gentleman, gets pulled down again, new opportunities are once again presented and the cycle repeats. He gets robbed, joins the army, deserts the army, is forced to rejoin when found, learns “bad behaviour” from other low-lifes in the army, saves the captain who forced him back into service, is sent to spy on an Irish nobleman, etc. He’s like a cipher at times, so it’s not surprising when he can suddenly be heroic, fight well or handle weapons masterfully. Ryan O’Neal doesn’t bring a whole lot to the character, but his blank slate performance actually fits Barry Lyndon perfectly.
In the case of Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago, we have another flat performance of the title character – but this time it helps the film not at all. After some initial setup involving the always fantastic Alec Guinness, we meet the young Yuri – losing his mother at an early age and then vowing to help the people as a med student about to graduate (instead of taking a cushy research position). Though I can’t blame Sharif entirely since the script never gives you much reason to feel anything towards Zhivago, he seems lost much of the time. Granted, the story takes place during the Russian revolution, so I guess you could be forgiving of that quality in a character – but not so much in the actor. Yuri seems a nice enough guy – feels sympathy for the revolution, joins the war as a doctor to soldiers, is happy (initially) to share his home upon return with other comrades – but he never comes across as a fully fledged person with actual traits. He also quickly becomes unsympathetic as he attempts to start an affair while off at war with Lara (Julie Christie). They’ve met previously – most notably at the announcement of Yuri’s engagement to Tonya when Lara shoots her uncle/boyfriend/rapist. She’s attractive and spirited, but Yuri’s Tonya has always been devoted, loving and given him no reason to stray. Sure, you could blame the war, but years later when Tonya and Yuri have had enough of the harsh times and take a train out to the mountains to live, Yuri barely even hesitates to start an affair with Lara for real when he hears she lives nearby. The government has taken over the family owned house, but Tonya and Yuri have set up shop in the cabin out back. When Tonya becomes pregnant, Yuri decides to break things off with Lara, but then he is separated from them both as he gets thrown into the army for a two year stint. Again, you should feel some sympathy for the poor guy, but upon returning he hears that his wife and child have left and moves quickly from despair to joy as he realizes that he can shack up with Lara. Hell of a guy, eh? It really takes away from a “love story for the ages” when your main male character seems to be happy with whichever one of his ladies happens to be left behind for him.
It’s about halfway through Barry Lyndon when the actual “love story” kicks in. After recognizing the Irish nobleman as a con-artist, Barry throws in with his countryman and they proceed to make a living off running games for the wealthy. Barry spots Countess Lyndon one night and, in one of the best sequences in the film, they have a wordless seduction scene set to gorgeous music that moves at a leisurely snail’s pace. Frankly, it could have gone on for twice as long – it’s simply a wonder to behold. The countess, of course, has an old frail husband, but he’s gets dispatched fairly quickly (in an over-the-top death scene after he confronts Barry – reinforcing the comic tone of the film). Now freed up and in love with Barry, the countess marries him only to see his interest in her plummet as she fades into his background (he cares more about carpets and other conquests than her). At the point where Barry now transitions into high society, the film transitions into Part II: Containing an account of the misfortunes and disasters which befell Barry Lyndon. There’s more plot in Zhivago as well, but it’s really not worth writing out…That’s not totally fair of course – particularly since the Russian revolution is part and parcel of the story (“The personal life is dead in Russia, history has killed it”) – but things move at a pace as frigid as much of the landscape on display.
But what landscape…Though the film overall has a much more “stage-y” feel to it in most of the dialogue scenes, there are several shots that define the term “sweeping”: battle sequences, soldiers trudging through barren surroundings and just about anything involving a train (I briefly considered only doing screencaps of train shots). A short scene involving the frozen insides of a house is drop dead gorgeous, but (as with much of the rest of the cinematography) doesn’t help or add a lot to the central story. In Barry Lyndon, on the other hand, the natural light cinematography (probably even more famous than Zhivago’s stylized shots) helps to situate one within the timeframe as well as deglamorize anything within Barry’s existence. After all, he’s really quite unlikeable.
Which brings us to further parallels between the films…Yuri isn’t a worthless human by any stretch, but as the film progresses you have less and less empathy for him. And though fate plays havoc with his life, I couldn’t bring myself to care very much about his uninvolving story, bland demeanour and lack of understanding towards his actions. For example, in Barry Lyndon there’s a scene where a German peasant woman cheats on her at-war husband (with Barry). Whereas Yuri gives no reason for his cheating on Tonya (leading him to look sleazy), this lovely lass confides to Barry that even though her heart remains with her husband the loneliness is unbearable. It’s more reason (whether you agree with it or not) than just simple after-the-fact rationalization. Barry and Yuri are pulled almost at random through war and other life changing events over and over (with many coincidences bumping up against them), but Yuri’s lack of awareness and utter lack of chemistry with either of his two lovers (or, for that matter, anyone on screen) reduces his story to a travelogue. Though Barry is a blank slate, he has complete awareness of his actions – he just doesn’t care that much. This helps play out his up and down fortunes in comedic fashion and, along with a much more natural feel to each scene and location, involves the viewer on a far greater scale. It was the joyous reward after finishing the homework.