Ever wonder why most movies are between an hour and a half and two hours long? Undoubtedly there's a commercial element that keeps movie times in that ballpark: Once a film stretches toward the 150-minute mark or beyond, movie theaters have trouble scheduling enough showings in an evening to make back the rental fee. Some might say that 90 minutes is a "natural" length for most people to sit through even a good story. But there are films that make a virtue of stretching out, including some classic titles boasting new Blu-ray and/or DVD editions.
Barry Lyndon (new to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video) sits sandwiched between A Clockwork Orange and The Shining in Stanley Kubrick's filmography, and its stately tale of 18th-century social grasping and failure has been somewhat overshadowed by his flashier masterpieces. A masterpiece it is, nonetheless, and one that draws power from its thoroughgoing attention to form, including its three-hour run-time.
Ryan O'Neal was a huge star in 1975, which no doubt helped him win the title role, but more than box-office draw, he brings a perfect vapidness to Barry, so perfect that it's easy to imagine Kubrick cast him precisely because he was a handsome lightweight. As in the William Makepeace Thackeray novel, Barry is a petulant young Irish commoner forced to flee his home after he kills a romantic rival in a duel. Joining, then deserting the English army, he winds up on the continent and insinuates himself into the affections of beautiful noble Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Though rich and comfortable, he can't enjoy the life he has, instead pursuing affairs and a title of his own and ultimately finding only disgrace.
Barry's many misadventures each fill in small aspects of his flawed character as well as his success and ultimate comeuppance, but by taking slightly more than three hours to tell the tale, Kubrick instills a pre-modern languor, bringing to life a world of horse-driven travel and cards and recitals as entertainment. If you're looking for them, you can spot a few handheld shots alongside the trademark zooms, but above all Kubrick favors gorgeous tableaux here (flicking through the scene index creates a de facto slide show of painterly establishing shot after painterly establishing shot) and interiors shot famously with actual candlelight. Even the choice to present the film in squared-off 1:37 aspect ratio rather than widescreen gives it a subtle anachronistic feel. There are many period films, but few films that make you feel the period as acutely, much less with such powerful psychological heft and artistic sweep.
Of course, Barry Lyndon hails from the 1970s, the era of spacious cinema. Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris recently debuted on Blu-ray as well, accompanying a new DVD issue from the Criterion Collection, and it too uses its expansive run-time and logy feel for more than indulgent effect. Based on Stanislaw Lem's novel (and followed in 2002 by a perhaps more familiar remake by Steven Soderbergh), Tarkovsky's film introduces psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) as he prepares to leave Earth behind for a space station orbiting Solaris, a distant planet covered by what seems to be a living/sentient ocean. The handful of researchers manning the orbital lab seem to have lost their grip; when Kelvin arrives, he finds dirty, cluttered hallways and spooked scientists, and before long, he's spooked too, as his long-dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), shows up in his cabin, alive, with no memory of how she got there.
The typically luxe Criterion treatment is ideal for Tarkovsky's painstaking compositions; the washed-out colors of past video iterations tended to make the film seem more '70s than necessary. And this version of the story splits the difference between Lem's philosophical novel and Soderbergh's epic love story. The uncanny visitors that Kelvin and the other humans on the station experience are generated by the planet as attempts to communicate with them; communicate what, exactly, remains undetermined. But Kelvin ultimately embraces this renewed chance at love, even as the reconstituted Hari wrestles with her unlikely existence, and despite some philosophical bickering and the austere, brooding tone, Solaris ultimately embraces love, too. The pre-computer effects, the deliberate pace, and the Russian undemonstrativeness of much of what happens here might be a hurdle for some viewers, but they do underline the isolation, the aloneness-in-the-universe at the core of this story, and Tarkovsky's power as a filmmaker can't be denied.
If you're watching on Blu-ray, these are salad days indeed, as reissues of desirable classics on BR, at whatever length, remain one of the few physical-product segments of the home-video market that seems robust. Barry Lyndon is out on Blu-ray as part of a Warner Home Video box set that presents all of Kubrick's films from Spartacus on, including the also never-on-BR Lolita (the same films are also out in a new companion DVD set). Paramount just issued Sergio Leone's 1968 widescreen spaghetti Western masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West on Blu-ray for the first time. And on a less macho front, Lorber just issued the long out-of-print 1993 arthouse favorite The Scent of Green Papaya on DVD and Blu-ray as well. It clocks in at a mere 104 minutes, but its sublimely sensuous, low-key depiction of a Vietnamese household savors far longer.