4/3/21: Barry Lyndon (1975) — Vain Competitive Ambition #poetry
Redmond Barry’s father would have been a great lawyer, but he lost his life in a duel. That’s how the narrator of Barry Lyndon, William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) begins this story. Make peace. I was competitive in my twenties, but in my thirties something happened. I stopped fighting and wanted to be treated nicely. I craved respect and good treatment. This caused me a great deal of shame and humiliation. I was outwardly bested by other men, men that I was much better than in many ways, and it bothered me. All that anguish for victories not worth having. My soul was always ahead of my mind. It took me years to notice that I was most happy when I was away from them. By years, I mean that this is a fairly recent development. If I were a hero, I’d try to make society better. I’d use my competitive impulse (something that I was taught and had no natural inclination towards) to try to do good. I’m no hero. Society is hopeless. Humanity is another matter. An unexpected benefit of growth as an artist is emotional equilibrium.
For much of my life I doubted one of the finest aspects of my character. I walk away from fights. Because of this nobility, I have suffered many furious internal monologues where I get the last word against a rival — in my mind. The mental conflict was pointless. I had unspoken arguments with capital punishment prosecutors. I would never want to argue that someone get the death penalty. The killer lawyers are welcome to their place in that immoral hierarchy. I argued with hack TV sitcom writers and actors. The dim witted and crass circus animals, showing off for bored people who lack imagination to do anything with their lives except waste them can take their place in the collective stream of consciousness, angrily spewing toxic waste on their way. The college professors don’t even inspire any dismissive words from me, since they have already dismissed themselves. I have separated from society. They have gone into hiding. It’s a big difference.
Vain competitive ambition isn’t all bad. I know that I have won every battle that I have apparently lost. I am so much smarter, and such a better person than everyone who ever challenged me. They were stupid fools. I was way out of their league. This pride is useful to me. You need a lot of confidence and courage to step outside of society and commit yourself to actually living life.
Stanley Kubrick was originally criticized for the detachment of his direction of Barry Lyndon. He followed the picture up with The Shining which was designed for more popularity — a win. Today, Barry Lyndon is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Kubrick and I were men of the 1970s. We wanted meaning and creative achievement, and we wanted to be rewarded handsomely for our efforts with the appropriate laurels that society could offer us. This confusion placed us in a state of ambivalence. Great art or great success … that was the question.
Detachment was exactly the right tone for Barry Lyndon and for everything else. What a beautiful movie this is. Kubrick painted an exquisite portrait of vain competitive ambition, free of any emotional traps. The story of an Irish climber from the 18th century naturally provided the great distance that a maturing artist needs.
Nations fight wars of vain competitive ambition with armies manned by men and women fighting personal wars of naked competitive ambition. Duels and love affairs are chaotic. One must step out of the whole ghastly show to breathe freely. Kubrick shows all of this beautifully and intuitively. I don’t think that he understood how accomplished this film was until years later. I’ve had that experience too. Reflection on the past, sometimes many years after its events, reveals the past’s true meaning, and in so doing reveals one’s essential nature.
Barry Lyndon is often misnamed as a drama, but it’s a comedy. The manners and the music are so genteel and formal. In Barry Lyndon, civilization is a costume. Everyone is out for themselves. There is no true civility. Nations’ rich owners flatter and seduce poor young men (and lately women) into dying for them in battle. Men and women enjoy friendship and even love, with a tacit understanding that one’s first loyalty is always to one’s vain competitive ambitions.
The movie was probably called a drama because it moves slowly. But the pace is exquisite. It is funnier because the follies of the characters are performed deliberately. Nothing is impulsive. Vain competitive ambition doggedly, glacially and persistently pursued in a society of violent exploitation — dreams of being king or queen of a mountain of dead and maimed bodies. It is said that a U. S. President has to be exceedingly petty and immoral in order to get the job, and exceeding generous and moral in order to do it well once he or she gets it. Getting the job is the much easier proposition. Conflict is the avoidance of action. You don’t have to win the Presidency to gift the world with generosity and morality.
Vain competitive ambition condemns those possessed by its demons to a life of longing, struggling and wandering. When vain competitive ambition is finally realized, the ambitious becomes smug, pompous, condescending and dull, only mustering something resembling passion when they jealousy guard and hold onto their ridiculous treasure. The victors hold banquets in each other’s honor, and tutor young people in the skill sets needed to pursue their awful course. They expect everyone else to bow to their success, and if they don’t get such tribute they get extremely angry. I never have been able to bow to them. I don’t see the point. The result is that they hate me for a time, finally realize that I won’t change, and leave me for dead. This suits me fine. It is ironic that I live and they — well, they ain’t living …
This movie is after my heart. It is so disrespectful of that which does not deserve respect. There is great understated humor in its sly malice. Barry Lyndon just wanted prosperity and comfort, and to be greeted with a bended knee. Don’t they all. Love, art, excellence, service — the vain competitive ambitious don’t even know what those things are. This is why people like Donald Trump, and there are so many like him, are so skilled at grabbing wealth and power, and are so stupid — deeply stupid —- about everything else.
Barry Lyndon is a masterpiece. I didn’t understand a frame of the film when I saw it in 1975 at age twenty. That’s OK, Kubrick didn’t either. He had no idea how great his achievement was. This movie says something more profound than even Kubrick knew. Visionaries often don’t know that they are visionaries until later, if at all. Barry Lyndon didn’t resonate with me, like other works that were beyond me but that I sensed were special. I thought Kubrick was a cold director and I didn’t like him much, except for Dr. Strangelove. Detachment is not a cold thing. To the contrary, detachment is the stance from which someone can really love another. Detachment does not preclude compassion. It precludes selfishness. There is no such thing as objectivity. One can’t overcome one’s own point of view. No one else can stand where you stand. But — the lens can be cleaned, the hurt and disappointment and anger can be removed. You can accept the imperfection of mankind, and then the day begins.
I love the audacity of this movie. Kubrick challenges the audience. He makes no concessions to their tastes. That made the film less than popular in 1975, and subsequently recognized by people who would know, as a great achievement. Real ambition is not competitive and it is not vain. Kubrick wasn’t engaged in an activity that invited comparison with other people. Real ambition is about consciously realizing your own unique character. Competitive ambition has the goal of amassing the most points at a meaningless game. Real ambition wants the respect and affection of superior people of excellence — not the poseurs of superiority — but the real thing. (One mark of the real superior is that they never condescend.) The play is thing with the really ambitious. True focus leaves no time for vanity.
Stanley Kubrick reached perfection and no one knew it, not even him. In Jesuit high school we used to write atop our papers — To the Greater Glory of God … Life is a mystery … all of these pecking orders and career frustrations and passing fulfillments are meaningless … a cacophony of ego ignoring a far greater reality … the passing materials of life can be just things, trophies and stuff or they can be the instrumentalities of God. I heard what those jesuits told me, and then I lost track of it, and then I got it back again.
Epilogue — rich or poor, winner or loser — the story is from the time of George III, all the characters are equal now … an amazing work of art.
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas