Thursday, December 11, 2008

Flattened Time in Barry Lyndon, IV

There is one moment in the entire movie where the life of the camera, its constant moving from one place to another, its recording of the movement of others even as it stands still, cedes to complete cellular motionlessness. Just after Barry’s leg has been amputated and he has lost all claim to society, lost even his only son, is embroiled in outstanding debts, and is “utterly baffled and beaten,” as the narrator describes him, there is a shot of Lyndon, climbing with his crutches into a carriage, that freezes for about five seconds. The dead shot is not so much a reminder of the still photographic genealogy of film, as it is an illustration of the still, unmovable state of what we can only imagine to be Lyndon’s decimated psyche. The entirety of the film has been motivated by his energy, his volition, his course across Europe and history and now, for five awkward seconds, the viewer is forced to stare at a figure so wrecked that the camera, who has accompanied his lively course throughout, emulates what we can only suspect he is sensing: the silence and stillness of his own decimation--something like Wordsworth's 'still, sad music of humanity.' The entirety of his past is implicit in this consequential moment, in addition to the totality of his future, as the narrator says:

Sometime after, he traveled to the continent. His life there, we have not the means of following accurately. But he appears to have resumed his former profession of a gambler, without his former success. He never saw Lady Lyndon again.

We are receiving information about Barry’s future in the past tense. These actions are already all completed. In this moment of stillness, Lyndon is everything he had ever been and would be. There is no historical depth yet we are staring for five seconds at a character destroyed by history. In the same manner that he has half his body in and the other half out of the carriage, he is both within consequence and without. We stare at him in this moment with a complete psychological grasp that is parallel to the singular momentous gaze by which we absorb a painting. I will return at some point to the narrator’s role in this, but will depart here to the resonance that this deep, psychological flatness has with the look of the film, determined by an instrument, the Zeiss lens, which reduces visual depth throughout the entire film. The psychological flatness of the film’s frozen moment is not only premised by a consistent visual field of total absorption, but that absorption additionally subsumes the psychological flatness into itself, creating a number of scenes that are striking, if only because they seem to embody a certain, still, silent human expression.

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