To the Editor:
I often wish that movie reviewers who are disappointed by highly regarded films would agree to reserve judgment. William S. Pechter’s superficially careful, analytical criticism of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon [“Kubrick and Peckinpah Revisited,” Movies, March] is just the type of writing which he will probably regret in ten years, as most New York critics are now embarrassed by their remarks about 2001.
I do not have the space in a letter to explain why I believe that Stanley Kubrick is an artistic genius. Allow me a few words, however. His vision is brilliant and unconventional—it takes a leap of the imagination to appreciate it, much more than is required to appreciate excellent but conventional movies like Taxi Driver or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mr. Pechter’s error, as I see it, is his insistence on finding the meaning of the work in Barry’s actions or interactions with other characters. In other words, he shouldn’t have been “waiting for the actors to come.” Rather, as he astutely implies, Kubrick’s point is that human potential is reduced by Fate, by immediate environment, by an indifferent universe. We must necessarily look elsewhere for meaning.
Here, Mr. Pechter’s remarks about the film’s visual “magnificence” apply. There is a contrast of an apparently ordered, grand cosmos which contains selfish, vicious, or completely unsuccessful persons. The film style, consisting of long shots which suggest the insignificance of human endeavor relative to an overwhelming natural order, and rear lighting, which flattens characters to stress outlines and two-dimensionality (or lack of substance), convey the film’s idea that although externally ordered by ritual and propriety, life is ultimately absurd.
In view of this analysis, Barry Lyndon must go “nowhere.” By contrast, Barry Lyndon goes on to articulate an artistic vision that is profoundly pessimistic, though certainly not misanthropic. To admit a pessimistic vision honestly is not the same as blessing it.
William S. Pechter writes:
While I appreciate Ken Moskowitz’s solicitude for my feelings ten years hence, and will take under advisement his interesting suggestion that critics declare a moratorium (of ten years, presumably) on the expression of reservations about films which are highly regarded, there are still a few last words on the subject of Kubrick and Barry Lyndon that I’d like to get in before the decade is out. I didn’t review 2001 (which I happen—with some serious reservations—to like) when it opened, and can’t presume to speak of my colleagues’ possible embarrassment over their first views of it, but thus far know of only one published recantation (by Andrew Sarris).
Not that I haven’t had second thoughts about films I’ve reviewed—I’ve already had some on The Killer Elite, which I still dislike but now feel calls for something more than my piece’s curt dismissal. But if Mr. Moskowitz had been less intent on all-embracing leaps of the imagination and the like, he might have noticed that not only do I grant Barry Lyndon its peculiar fascination but I attempt, in effect, to defend it against the charge by several reviewers that it’s only a boring procession of contentless pretty pictures, or a genteel exercise in illustrating the classics (Harold Rosenberg, in fact, praised the film in the Sunday Times for being the latter), and I try to relate the content of Barry Lyndon’s images to Kubrick’s earlier work. To quote from my review (and take an opportunity to set right a sentence that unfortunately fell victim to typographical gremlins): “There, amid the grand and sumptuous decors of his past, man acts out his petty and futile vanities with all the triviality of those heirs seen making small talk and phone calls home at stations in outer space amid the technological marvels of 2001.”
That content I find in Barry Lyndon I identify as “misanthropy,” though Mr. Moskowitz takes me to mean this to be a bad word, and, despite his doing a fair job of describing Kubrick’s misanthropy himself, he prefers to call it “pessimism.” Yet to appreciate the difference between the two one has only to compare a work such as Kubrick’s The Killing with the film—John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle—to which it virtually pays homage (or, for that matter, to compare Barry Lyndon with Huston’s most recent, The Man Who Would Be King) . For Huston as for Kubrick, the quests on which his characters embark are destined to end badly, but, in Huston’s world, this doesn’t preclude the possibilities of there being some meaning in the endeavor or of the attainment of individual heroism. But for Kubrick, all is meaningless futility, and the characters of his film ultimately are as one in their utter insignificance. Not that even this necessarily dooms his work to failure; but if a 2001 is a success, it’s also a special case of a film whose mode isn’t dramatic, and one in whose images the role of objects has been elevated to primacy over that of people. (Despite which, it has an interesting and exciting actor—Keir Dullea—cast in its lead, while Barry Lyndon has a costumer’s dummy.) And though I’ve no doubt that the effect I describe as that of watching a huge stage set (like 2001, Barry Lyndon is a film of vast spaces) to which no actors come is Barry Lyndon’s intended one, it is achieved by straining to divest a mode (the picaresque novel) naturally given to dramatic interaction among richly drawn characters of these very qualities. If, in 2001, background objects have been brought to the fore, this isn’t quite the same as Barry Lyndon’s elimination of a foreground altogether—and though Mr. Moskowtiz may be prepared to fill up the resultant emptiness with imaginative leaps of belief in Kubrick’s artistic genius, I suspect that I’ll be as little inclined to join him in 1986 as I am at the present.