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Barry Lyndon

Review: Barry Lyndon

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a film in which the expected always happens—but usually in quite an unexpected way, much as a detail in a painting will surprise and delight, regardless of the ordinariness of its context. The world of Barry Lyndon, first of all, is not the 18th-century Europe of historical reality; it is the 18th-century Europe of Art—of the literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, costume, and design of the period. That’s as it should be for a film from a picaresque novel about a rudely reared, would-be gentleman’s striving after the elegance befitting what he feels to be his rightful station. And it’s as it should be for Kubrick, whose preference for the realm of art and ideas over that of natural, historical, quotidian reality is evident, and whose cinematic studies of Manipulated Man, even at their rawest, have always been couched in idealistic terms: tidy sets, tidy costumes, tidy makeup, and tight, impeccably composed shots. I’ve never seen quite so many absolutely symmetrical frame compositions in such a short time as during the running of Barry Lyndon; and no form-for-form’s-sake, either—the symmetry of individual shots and of montage directly reflects the symmetry of the story of Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall.

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The “Barry Lyndon” Conspiracy!

The works of Stanley Kubrick never failed to generate debate and, at times, deep-seeded controversy when they arrived in theaters, so it’s no surprise that they have generated almost as much debate (though for entirely different reasons) in their home video releases.

Kubrick was a perfectionist in all areas of his filmmaking, including presentation, the one arena over which he had very little control. He could and did set the desired specifications for proper projection but couldn’t enforce them or, given the realities of projection standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, even always count on theaters being conducive to following them. His preferred aspect ratio for his post-2001 releases was 1.66:1, a standard format in Europe but not in the U.S., where most theaters routinely set non-anamorphic films at the 1.85:1 standard.

While Kubrick was alive, he insisted that the DVD releases of his films be formatted at his preferred specifications. Even so, Warner Bros. was raked over the coals for their initial DVD release of his films, which simply reused old laserdisc transfers rather than freshly-mastered high-definition editions. Now there is a hue and cry from a small but vocal sector of the critical community over the Blu-ray release of Barry Lyndon. And the debate, not surprisingly, has gotten very passionate and a little personal.

The whole thing was kicked off when Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere (always good for explosions of indignation) blew a gasket over the specs on the Blu-ray cover, which listed the aspect ratio at 1.85:1: “storm the barricades!” Glenn Kenny, on his blog Some Came Running, tried to slow the rush to judgment by looking at the disc itself, which he found at first glance to be 1:66:1.

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