Kubrick Sans

Now secure with the status of a classic, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) wasn’t universally admired when it was first released. Pauline Kael described the adaptation of William Makepeace Thackarey’s novel as ‘a mistake’. In her review for the New Yorker she wrote : ‘It’s a coffee table movie; we might as well be at a three-hour slideshow for art-history majors.’ Michael Wood, writing in the New York Review of Books, agreed that it was pretty but dreary : ‘there is only the slow parade of flawless pictures, and the dance winds down to a death march, sumptuous last honors for what used to be the movies.’ In another passage of his review, Wood wrote :

‘How did they ever make a film of Lolita?’ the advertising asked when the movie was first released – although the question was not prompted by the texture of Nabokov’s prose. One critic tartly replied, ‘They didn’t.’

This gets to something about Kubrick. Once he gained independence from the studios (which nevertheless continued to fund his work for the prestige it brought), his movies, each developed over years, were faithful to their sources only so far as they suited his intention. Sometimes to the irritation of their authors : Stephen King said of Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining that it was ‘a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.’ In Barry Lyndon there’s another disconnect between source and movie : much of the preparation that went into making it, including the assembly of a huge archive of books, images and artefacts, was undertaken for another project altogether, an eventually aban­doned life of Napoleon. Perhaps preparing to make one project, a bio­graph­ical epic, then filming another, a picaresque, set in much the same historical context, grafted an austere and laconic mood to something that would have benefited from being lighter and wittier.

But even if one agrees that it is a mere slideshow (I don’t), it’s a spectacularly conceived one. No contemporary sets were built, all the filming being done on location in Ireland, England and West Germany (often in stately homes where the production crew had to work around guided tours of the properties taking place at the same time). The attention to detail went beyond archi­tecture, costumes and props : Kubrick also wanted 18th-cent­ury light. The film was photographed by John Alcott, in daylight whenever possible. The night-time interiors were candle-lit, shot without using any artificial lighting. For these scenes Kubrick got hold of the lens best-suited to filming in pro­foundly gloomy conditions – the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 – developed for NASA’s Apollo Pro­gram to photo­graph the dark side of the Moon. Only ten were made : NASA bought six, Kubrick three, and Carl Zeiss AG kept one. The lenses, which had been designed for still image photo­graphy, had to be radically modi­fied to work for motion filming. Even with state-of-the-art optics, triple-wicked candles had to be made to throw out enough light, and actors’ pos­ition­ing and movement were highly circ­um­scribed to avoid them dropping out of focus.

Kubrick’s 18th century is coherent and plausible. The landscapes are muddy rather than manicured; the costumes look lumpy and hand-stitched compared to the sleek machine-made tailoring that appears in most period dramas, and the compositions, some echoing paintings and prints contemporaneous to the setting of the story, are as Wood said, flawless. Well, almost. This 18th century isn’t a perfect replica : the IMDB entry for the movie lists numerous ana­chron­isms, but in a period piece running to more than three hours, a few slips are hardly surprising. One that has so far evaded attention on IMDB comes in the scene in which Barry arrives at an inn where he is to be recruited to the British cause in the Seven Years’ War. The text of the sign at the Health to the Barley Mow is rendered in a condensed semi-bold sans serif font with a distinct whiff of the machine age : type the like of which wouldn’t be seen until more than a century after the setting of the movie.

From ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975) copyright © Warner Bros.

Given Kubrick’s meticulous research, budget, and acquisition of actual space-age tech­no­logy, this does seem like a notable and avoidable gaffe. But in the mid-1970s when fonts weren’t part of most people’s workaday experience, and the history of type and printing a more-rarefied field than now, few would have noticed the anachronism. And some of us who do see it are the very people who remain oblivious, as the IMDB goof page tells us, to ‘two of the Prussian soldiers … firing U.S. M1874 Trapdoor Springfield rifles, disguised as flintlocks.’

Coined for the eponymous protagonist of Eminem’s 2000 song, a Stan is a fan whose loyalty to their object of admiration tends to the obsessive, and in the realm of movie fandom, there are few Stans to match Stanley’s Stans. The 2013 documentary Room 237 introduces us to some of them, investigating their theories about the meanings to be found in Kubrick’s version of The Shining. The inter­pret­a­tions run from the more-or-less unexceptional observation that there was something going on in the movie about the appropriation of Native American lands, to the endearingly far-fetched idea that the film was Kubrick’s oblique apology to his wife for not letting on to her that he had faked the footage of the 1969 Moon landing (the contributor makes clear that it was the footage that was faked, not necessarily the landing). Not mentioned in the documentary, pro­pon­ents of this theory would certainly see cosy lens-tech sharing with NASA as a smoking gun.

A few years ago, in a twitter exchange about Barry Lyndon, I light-heartedly (I know) posted the image above saying ‘Ruined it for me.’ A stern reply told me that sans serif types did indeed exist in the eighteenth century (I know they did) and such a hand-painted sign might well have existed (vanishingly improbable). I don’t know whether I was dealing with a defensive Stan-Stan or a compelled-to-educate typomaniacal-Stan, but had I, like Kubrick and his researchers, im­mersed myself in the graphic arts of 18th-century Europe, I might have had the smug satis­fac­tion of posting a detail from William Hogarth’s ‘Beer Street’.

‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’

The companion to the more sensational ‘Gin Lane’, I don’t recall the picture being used in the run-up to the UK’s Brexit refer­endum, but it might easily have been, either by Leavers (without irony) or Remainers (with). The antipode to the degraded lives in Gin Lane (where, apart from the distillers, only the pawn­broker Gripe thrives), is the ad absurdum spectacle of prosperity and plenty in Beer Street (where the golden balls of Gripe’s counterpart, Pinch, path­etic­ally droop). Among Beer Street’s denizens, the only ragged figure is an inter­lop­ing artist (a visitor from Gin Lane?) lovingly adding an image of a gin still to a panel below an ale-house sign. I had never looked at the sign carefully until recently, but with esprit de l’escalier, I think it is fair to say that the Health to the Barley Mow is reflexively familiar. And has serifs.

Detail from ‘Beer Street’ by William Hogarth (1751).

Sources. ‘Kubrick’s Gilded Age’ by Pauline Kael (New Yorker, 29 December 1975); ‘No, but I read the book’ by Michael Wood (New York Review of Books, 5 February 1976); ‘Photographing Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (American Cinematographer, 16 March 2018); Barry Lyndon ‘Goofs’ at IMDB; high-resolution versions of ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’ can be found on Wikipedia.  Images. With the exception of those including a copyright attribution in their captions, any images included in this post may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.