Few veteran film critics are as internet savvy as The Australian and SBS online reviewer Lynden Barber. Barber worked as a staff writer for newspapers and magazines in the 80s and 90s, banging away on stories during the days when “Google” still sounded like something you might use to shield your eyes, but has had no trouble evolving with the times.
In addition to his duties as a critic Barber is a website curator for the National Film and Sound Archive, runs a blog called Eyes Wired Open and is a social media hound, prolific on Twitter and a daily user of Facebook. His approach to blogging demonstrates how Barber uses the online world as a tool for research and organisation.
“In some ways I regard my blog as my personal note book,” he says. “Sometimes I put things up there that I find are really interesting. I can put in keywords which can help me pinpoint things — like a quote in an interview I might later want to turn into a story. The private notebook that’s open to the public.”
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Born in the UK, Barber migrated to Australia in 1985. He was the staff film writer at The Australian between 1994-2004 and before that senior film critic at The Sydney Morning Herald for five years. He has also written for Rolling Stone Australia, Meanjin, NME and Lumina. A man of many reels, Barber served as Artist Director of the Sydney Film Festival for 2005 and 2006 and this year begins teaching film studies at Sydney Film School.
Like most critics, Barber likes to go into the cinema “cold,” not having fell privy to the whims of PR or even having read a synopsis.
“I love going into a film without knowing much about it, which is kind of ironic when you earn a living partly through describing films,” he says.
Barber knows he has a much sought after job — or jobs — but also acknowledges what every critic will tell you if prodded: that it isn’t always beer and skittles.
“When the general public ask what you do and you respond they immediately say something like ‘I wish I could do that job!’ I love my job, I love writing about films, I love going to see films, but there is always a downside to any professional work. The moment you turn a passion into work, there will be some part of it that will be extremely difficult.”
Barber is the third participant – after the ABC’s Margaret Pomeranz and The Age’s Jake Wilson – in Cinetology’s Meet the Critics series, which examines the viewing habits and philosophies of the country’s leading film reviewers.
Do you read much film criticism? If so, what publications and writers do you recommend?
I used to subscribe to Sight and Sound for many years, probably 20 years or so. I read it more or less cover to cover. Plus I’d buy other magazines like Film Comment and occasionally Empire or Filmink, the more pop culture mags, which can have some lively stuff in them too. I stopped subscribing to Sight and Sound because I found I wasn’t actually reading it. I got out of the habit of reading print magazines and I am just starting to re-assess that because I sort of miss it, and feel that so much of my life is spent on the internet.
One of the people I look to most commonly who I really enjoy — who’s a great appreciator of cinema and a fantastic, deceptively good writer — is Roger Ebert. He is the most well known film critic in America because of his TV show, which I’ve actually never seen. He has so much command of the writing craft of film criticism and I find him totally satisfying even if, of course, I don’t always agree with him.
The most important thing about criticism is the reasoning people use — the knowledge they bring to explaining how they feel about a film. I think Ebert understands that and I am often in awe when I read his stuff, how it seems to jut drip off the pen. I think he’s been particularly good since he had his illness. He can’t speak now, lost his voice entirely, and I think he has one of those Stephen Hawking type throat devices. I think that’s intensified his need to write.
Someone else I think is very good who is only online is Jim Emerson, from the Scanners blog. Scanners is really good. Emerson is not an academic critic but he could be, and he’s obviously read quite a lot of David Bordwell. One of the things I like about Bordwell is that he’s an academic but he doesn’t write in an academic style. He represents quite a fresh approach to other traditional film theorists, coming from a school known as ‘formalists’ or ‘neo formalists’ which essentially means he’s less interested in grand theorizing and more interested in breaking down what is actually happening on the screen: logging it, noting it, looking at the way film works in its mechanics, in its editing, in the way shots are set up, etcetera. What I really like about that approach is there’s an element of objectivity. I think a lot of film theory is about setting up a theory and then using a film to justify it.
What if anything is wrong with the current state of film criticism and/or attitudes towards film critics?
I don’t have any major bug bears about film criticism. I think there is so much stuff out there, so many bloggers and people who have one foot in professional writing and one foot in blogging. The internet has enabled a huge amount of writing. It might be that 80% of it is pure rubbish — maybe even 95% — but that’s true for the internet in general, not just criticism. But once you know where to look that extra 5% presents a huge amount of great material.
I was going to ask next about your thoughts regarding the impact internet writers have had on film criticism, but I think you’ve already answered that.
I think there is something else going on, which is the amount of commenting, particularly on mainstream columns and websites. I’m thinking particularly about some of the discussion about Australian film that have been on The Drum and Jim Schembri’s blog on The Age. There was a period over about a couple of years when Schembri would do a think piece or a provocative piece on the state of Australian cinema. I read all of those comments and found them very interesting. Then I tired of them very quickly, because you realise that an awful lot of people have opinions that are based on prejudice. For example they’ll call all Australian films crap because they saw a bad one many years ago. I find that really dispiriting.
How did you become a film critic and when did you know you wanted to be one?
My background was as a music critic. I started writing film reviews when I worked on the London rock paper The Melody Maker in the early 80s and was living in London in my late teens, early 20s. It was only when I discovered foreign and independent cinemas in London that I really got the film bug. I can actually remember of the key incidents: I was on my way to see a gig by The Fall at The Marquee, this legendary club that was actually a horrible dive. I was walking down Wardour street and I walked past one of those micro-sized boutique cinemas and Werner Herzogs’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God was playing. I stood there, read one of the reviews outside and decided to see that instead of the gig. It amazed me. Blew me away. I had similar experiences watching Tarkovsky films in tiny cinemas, like the sort of theatrettes journalists get invited to. That then ignited a much keener interest in Hollywood cinema. Growing up I was not a mad film buff.
The general public love to munch away while watching a movie. What are your eating habits in the cinema? Are you addicted to popcorn, sneak in the occasional choc-top, or there strictly to watch the film?
A choc-top, maybe. Popcorn I have done in the past. I remember about ten years ago going to see a documentary about Sam Fuller at the Sydney Film Festival. I’d been going to several films in a row and it was my third or fourth film and I hadn’t eaten. You know what it’s like at a festival when you’re dashing around — you don’t get time to eat. I grabbed a tub of popcorn. I was sitting there as quiet as possible, trying to put the pieces in my mouth and not make any noise, and this woman in front of me turned around and glared. You get a few nutters at festivals. I said to her: “lady, you are sitting in a cinema. People eat popcorn in cinemas!”
Do you take notes in the cinema? If so, how extensive are they?
I do take notes and often they are very hard to read back because you end up writing on top of your lines. When I get a point I think is really key, or a I’ve come up with a point that really crystallises what I’m thinking about a film, or even a specific line, I put a big tick next to it. Then I can go back and transcribe the ticks or re-read passages I’ve ticked. Only in films I know I am going to be reviewing, though. If it’s a film I’m watching for pleasure or out of general interest I generally won’t take notes, because that turns it into work. I don’t like taking notes but it does help jog the memory. Ideally after I’ve seen a film I should write up my notes or even write up the review straight away. I always find it is much easier when you do that. But in practice, I often leave it to the deadline. A journalistic sin, I know.
Moving onto the subject of eye moistening: when if ever was the last time you cried while watching a film and what was it?
Well, I didn’t cry during War Horse. But the moment with the barbed wire — and I’m trying to phrase this so it doesn’t give anything away — was quite shocking. I thought any kid would be traumatized by that. It’s not like the scene in Bambi where the mother is shot. It’s much more vivid and real.
We had a family viewing of The Sound of Music this Christmas. My son had never seen it and decided to get it out and screen it for us after our family Christmas dinner. After The Lonely Goatherd I started tearing up. I thought, how ridiculous! The Lonely Goatherd is a happy song!
Who are your five favourite living directors?
I don’t know that I can even answer this question. Five is far too many for me. I know this is not a very film critic-y kind of answer, but I don’t really think in those terms. There are very few living directors who I so admire, whose whole body of work is so great, that I want to rush out to see their new films. I find some of the greatest directors can also produce shockers. One of my favourite films of the last year has been Melancholia, but some of Lars von Triers films I’ve barely been able to sit through. Probably the most consistent for me in terms of having a fascinating style — creating his own world, technique and philosophy of making films that is absolutely unlike anybody else — is Mike Leigh. He would come close to being one of my favourite directors. Herzog, yes, generally, but going back to some of his earlier films.
What are your five favourite Australian films of the last ten years?
What is your first memory of the cinema?
Sleeping Beauty, the Disney film. I was probably about four years old when I saw it and I remember being taken to the cinema by one of my mum’s friends. That obviously made an impact on me. I remember I used to go and see a lot of Hayley Mills films, which shows how old I am. She was John Mills’ daughter, a child star of the early 60s. I loved the original 101 Dalmatians, Jungle Book, the Disney animations. I just adored them as a kid and I assume everybody else did as well. Particularly the King of the Swingers scene in Jungle Book, I just adored that. I grew up to be a jazz fan; I don’t know if that had any influence or not.
Can you describe the strangest experience at the cinema you’ve ever had?
I remember one day at the Sydney Film Festival, preparing for a film, with the audience sitting in the State Theatre. I’d been told to make sure to look after the director because it was the first time her film had been screened in public. But there was a problem: a piano was being delivered to the theatre, and the State Theatre doesn’t have proper back stage facilities — nor does it have proper backstage doors. Things actually have to come in through the roof. This piano, which should have come in at eight o’ clock in the morning but turned up eight hours late, was hovering in the air behind the curtain, behind the screen, up at roof level, very slowly coming down on wires. When it finally came down the delivery person said to me “now we just have to take it out in into the audience to assemble it, put the pedals on.” I said “you’re not doing that!” and the crisis was eventually resolved. It was very surreal.
Looking back over your filmic life, what is the cinematic experience you recall most fondly?
One of my fondest memories is going to see the world premiere of Pulp Fiction at Cannes. There were more people trying to get in then there were seats, but I finally squeezed myself in, and that was a buzz. Particularly going along to interview some of the cast and (Quentin) Tarantino the next day, including (John) Travolta. Travolta was basking in the fact that he’d just been rediscovered. He was charming and lovely. Bruce Willis was bad tempered. He was immediately defensive and aggressive and I thought wow, he has a chip on his shoulder.
There’s a common assumption that critics have a very large home collection of films. Is that true for you?
I’ve got quite a few DVDs but I’m generally much more obsessed in finding films I haven’t watched before. I just don’t feel like I have to have a big collection. You can usually find titles you want to watch in stores or online. The other thing is, I have so many bloody books taking over the house, and a large vinyl collection too. I like to actually have some space to live in as well.
With regards to philosophy re: sitting in the cinema, are you a back row sitter? A front row sitter? Why?
Usually I like to sit somewhere around the middle of the cinema but lately I’ve been sitting near the front, because I’ve had an eye problem, an acute case of dry eye. I was getting to the point that I felt if I sat further back I would have to strain my eyes more. I quite enjoyed sitting up the front. Too close to the front can be disorienting, though, if you can’t see the whole screen.
Finally, what advice would you provide to a) aspiring filmmakers and b) aspiring film critics?
I suspect the best advice to aspiring filmmakers comes from other filmmakers. For starters, watch lots of films and think about them. You don’t have to shy away from watching bad films, because you can learn a lot from them too.
In terms of film critics, I answered that quite recently on my blog. I wrote a few points, including not to run with the crowd. You don’t have to follow sheepishly; the best critics are leaders. At the same time don’t go to the opposite extreme and be perverse. An opinion doesn’t become validated just because it’s widely held. Going to either of those extremes I think are real traps.