Three-hour-long movies that feel like half-hour sitcoms are a treasure, and are extremely rare, especially that the style has shifted, almost totally away from this format in recent years. Labor has gotten simultaneously cheaper (software does a lot of the editing grunt work) and more expensive (it takes more specialized experience to run it). Budgets have expanded, and massive returns are expected. The blockbuster has shifted mediums, too, from the physical block, to eventually, the blockchain. Streaming and massive distribution is king and finding an unhappy content churn is the profit-maximizing middle where original thought dies. The three-hour-long movie better damn well have an expanded universe or audiences will continue game out effective bathroom breaks. Three cheers for the return of an intermission.
Attention spans have waned with the increase in media outlets: why would an audience spend minutes – seconds even! – on one platform when the next platform has the next cultural missive ready to go. There will be a time in the early 2020s (check me on this, future readers) when the splintering of services will bundle into packages customers can buy; it will have regressed into neo-cable, with each platform owning exclusive rights to content, removing consumer choice from marketing paradigms. Instead of driving subscriptions, this non-coordinated market abuse will drive a significant portion of people who might buy one or two subscriptions to steal the content. Eventually the funding will run dry and the islands of content will become deserts. Nostalgia will be the only currency in which these fake-monopolies trade. Forget monoculture. Remember protoculture.
The point here is that there is very little room in today’s marketing/content churn environment for a director – let alone Stanley Kubrick – to film a Thackeray satire. This three-hour epic, Barry Lyndon, does read like vignette of half-hour shows, told anthology-like through a narrator we’re supposed to believe is reliable. Barry Lyndon‘s eponymous Redmond Barry is the tragic farce of stale upper crust Thackeray was known to lampoon. His narrative arc is as long as Kubrick’s shots are wide. His character portraits are eloquent, but backloaded. Action is sprinkled among shots that double as paintings. Barry Lyndon requires an attention span and a patience audiences no longer possess en masse. Students of film know and love this film for its technical innovation and its warm, true-to-tone adaptation of Thackeray’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.” An everyday audience, the one whose billets-complets fill Disney’s pockets, has no use for this low-budget movie. Even casual Kubrick fans dismiss this as Kubrick’s passion project; it is, and it is impossible to edit down.
The most convincing method to manage this statement is marginal minutes: how many minutes would Kubrick and his editors need to cut, all else equal, to make this movie more accessible? Forty? Fifty? If this is indeed the case – take it as true – for this argument to make sense then what? Barry Lyndon tells the trials and tribulations of a man overcoming his “station” by sheer Last Man, and rightly being undone by his own hubris. Which part of the character development is less important when this character is the sole driver of the plot? Kubrick, through Thackeray, and through Barry Lyndon‘s narrator, has no standing to make this decision ex post facto. Sure, the script could have been somewhat tighter, but with every frame a painting it become essential to anchor each so that its verisimilitude is overprinted with the oil, either from the candles used to manually light sets or from the ersatz and imagined cartoon of a life Monseigneur Redmond Barry chose to pursue.
Even – even – if editor Tony Lawson could have found a half hour to trim from this movie, what would be the point? If, in the era of the most ambitious filmmaking between 1968 and 1976, audiences clamored for Barry Lyndon, The Godfather (I & II), and Patton. Willing, yes, but also willing to read a long book, travel long distances to attend small concerts or cafes, and willing to wait weeks to learn that a Presidential summit in South Africa happened let alone how our government sold its democracy. We have become a population demanding and also uncompromising. We’re unwilling now, but are also trapped in the modern demand for our eyeballs. Content? Branded?
Expectations have forever changed, attentions spans have been recalibrated at the generational level, and we’re no longer willing to wait for a movie to load on demand let alone spend three hours watching it. More and more people probably spend that time looking for the perfect 20 minute sitcom to watch, and they’ll search five platforms across their devices to do so. There exists crippling indecision lost in between takes; takes best captured first in Barry Lyndon.
Despite (Because of?) its robust runtime, Barry Lyndon represents some of 1975’s best filmmaking. Technocrats loved Kubrick’s exploration of lighting and blocking, dilettantes loved the austere costuming and makeup, but audiences in general found it underwhelming: a $20 million gross box office take (in 1975$) would tie it for 17th on the year, with 1975’s winner, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and other nominees Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon out-earning Barry Lyndon. Surely even movie and music(?) lovers are confused about Nashville (hint: not about music). The year was surprisingly weak outside of these top all-time contenders, and Barry Lyndon for all its relevance, execution, and impeccable piece of the Kubrick resume, is shunted out of not only 1975’s limelight, but also that of the surrounding years; it wouldn’t have beaten The Godfather, Part II from 1974, or Rocky in 1976. As a testament however to this film’s importance in Film production history, it did win four of seven Oscars, all in technical categories.