Blindspotting #11 – Barry Lyndon and Doctor Zhivago

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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.

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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.

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Blindspotting #10 – Amadeus and Marty

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At the time I set out to write this particular blind spot post originally, it was during the Toronto International Film Festival and I found myself without much time left and in a quandry as to what to choose for the Blind Spot. What did I feel like writing about this this time around? I don’t know, what do I feel like writing about? I didn’t just want to slap something mediocre together, but found myself looking for two films that would at least somewhat relate to each other. I ended up choosing two Oscar winning pictures: 1984’s Amadeus and 1955’s Marty. Besides each film taking their titles from the first names of their main characters and each having taken home the Best Picture prize of its year (as well as Best Actor, Director and Screenplay awards), I thought that the 30 year gap between them would add some interesting comparison points. It turns out that the main characters of each film are much more interesting comparison points than I would’ve guessed – especially when it comes to the area of mediocrity.

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The main character in Amadeus is, in many ways, not actually the famous composer himself, but his rival Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham in the Oscar winning performance). Though he fancies himself quite the musical genius (and is indeed the court composer for Emperor Joseph II), he is gobsmacked when he encounters the ease with which Mozart creates entire fully-formed pieces (the “voice of God”) within his head. Salieri is not only jealous of Mozart’s skill, but he wonders why God has given these talents to this vulgar character who drinks, carouses and appears to have no manners about him. Salieri vows to block Mozart’s success by working against him behind the scenes and, eventually, to murder him. From the confines of an insane asylum, we learn much of this many years after Mozart’s death as Salieri confesses all to a priest after a botched suicide attempt. From Salieri’s point of view, everything was fine before this young punk showed up on the scene. Not that it necessarily affected his career, but he suddenly couldn’t help but see his own shortcomings. Previously, “everybody liked me…I liked myself.”.

He can’t help but now see himself as just a mediocre talent, forsaken by God. Even though he secretly attends every Mozart performance and opera, he cannot accept this and continues to work towards crushing Amadeus (e.g. ensuring people don’t hire him for tutoring positions, closing operas in short order, etc.). His only chance to rise above his own mediocrity is to destroy Mozart and triumph over God.

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