Xan Brooks Interview

Oomska talks to: Xan Brooks

Xan Brooks is a film critic, and Associate Editor, at The Guardian newspaper.

Thanks for talking to Oomska, Xan. Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about your current job, as a film critic, and how that came about?

According to my press card, my current job is an ‘associate editor’ at the Guardian, which is a catch-all title that covers a multitude of sins. I write reviews and news and features and I also pitch in on podcasts and video. I’d say about 90% of that is film-related, and that’s obviously where my main interest and experience is, but I also dabble a bit in books and sports journalism and in general feature writing.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed your Wimbledon reports. What proportion of Guardian arts writers fit this ‘multitude of sins’ mode? 

Is it the Chinese who conflate crisis and opportunity into one word? Journalism is going through its own mini ‘Reformation’, staff are being cut and those who remain are often required to double-up and multi-task. Obviously this means a greater workload, at times painfully so. But in terms of the tennis coverage, it’s been a blessing. I’ve loved tennis since I was a kid and it’s lovely to be able to write about it. Writing is writing, whatever the genre, so long as you have some knowledge and appreciation of what you’re writing about. But you’re right, not many others seem to stray far beyond their specialist area, even now. It was me who asked to cover the tennis and the sports-desk agreed. I’m grateful they felt able to take that gamble.

As for how I arrived at my current role, I blundered into it. I worked for five years at the Big Issue magazine in London, which was an exciting and eccentric place to work as well as being a wonderful environment in which to learn about journalism; to experiment and fail and sometimes get it right. From there I started to freelance for the nationals, and was then offered the chance to edit the Guardian film site, which I wound up doing for eight years.

How would you compare the Film Site now to how it was at the time when you started? Has the balance shifted, in terms of the perceived importance of the Film site, compared with the print version? With the explosion in online newspaper access, the readership must be much more digital now; certainly more people must access the site now than read the paper?

Oh yes, the film site was such the poor cousin to print when I started. Very hard to be taken seriously, very hard to originate decent stuff and turn it into something more than a weird elephant’s graveyard archive for old film content. But I think even then there was a sense that this was the future. The Guardian was always happy to fund and nurture the website, so the support was always there. In the broadest terms I think the audience and the perception really began to change after 9/11, during the so-called ‘War on Terror’ when the Guardian began picking up an American readership who perhaps felt they weren’t being well served by the main US news sources at the time. These days there’s a general acknowledgement that print (at least as we know it) is on the way out and that the audience is predominantly international and digital.

How did you first develop an enthusiasm for cinema? What were some key films?

My dad has always been a great film enthusiast. I remember him telling me about antique 1930s monster movies (‘Dracula’, ‘King Kong’, etc) when I was barely old enough to speak.

Even when I visit him now, there is usually something he has stored up to show me on DVD. So perhaps it all started from there.

It’s great to have someone fulfil that role. I had a couple of movie buff Uncles, and I know their enthusiasm rubbed off on me a fair bit. There’s a bit less mystery to the process now, though, isn’t there? I can remember when owning a battered VHS cassette of, say, a minor noir, or a Woody Allen taped off the TV, made you a hot property. Now I can watch YouTube clips, download whole films, etc. If I want to ‘show’ you a film, I can pretty much just send you a link (or if I’m flush, have Amazon post you a copy). This cornucopic superabundance is a two-edged sword, right?

Oh yeah, there’s no doubt that a lot of the mystique has gone. Back in the dark ages certain films (and, for that matter, songs, music, comic-books, whatever) had a potent talismanic quality. You might read about a film for months or even years before you actually got to see it. By the same token, you could stumble upon something astonishing on late-night TV without having the faintest idea what it was called – and then there was no Google or IMDB to clear up the mystery. I’d find myself comparing scrambled notes with friends at school: “They were all speaking French but it was set in somewhere like South America. And they had to drive these truckloads of nitro-glycerine over the mountains.” That kind of stuff.

But I’m guessing my education followed a pretty standard route. I went from the kindergarten of James Bond and Indiana Jones through to the adolescent playground of horror movies. Again, I remember being obsessed by the thought of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ long before I actually got the chance to see it.

Someone wrote something recently (I think in the Guardian) about how we all used to get a sort of ‘education’ in cinema – whether we liked it or not – via the raft of films shown at Xmas, and those ‘seasons’ they used to run. Is that a crucial aspect of what’s missing from the diet consumed by today’s teenagers? Isn’t the tendency towards shortening of horizons, historically, a worry?

Yes, it was the public service aspect of film programming at the BBC. Put on a retrospective. Educate the public. I used to watch those seasons religiously, it was like evening class. That’s how I learned about Brando and Billy Wilder, via the BBC seasons they ran in the 1980s. After that came the great Alex Cox ‘Moviedrome’ series and just the happy accident of discoveries. Films that particularly connected with me as a lonesome, geeky teenager include ‘Badlands’, ‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘Breaking Away’, ‘Breathless’, ‘Rumble Fish’, ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’. It was like being alerted to a giddying other world that lay outside the pokey living-room in the small-town where I lived.

Ah, ‘Five Easy Pieces’. Isn’t it an eccentricity of the artform that a giant star such as Jack Nicholson can have given one of his most impressive performances in a film that’s so little seen today?

I might be wrong, but I think ‘Five Easy Pieces’ was reasonably high-profile on first release – Nicholson might even have been Oscar-nominated for it. Possibly it’s only seen as obscure today because the films he made afterwards (‘The Last Detail’, ‘Chinatown’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) were so much bigger that they overshadowed it. But yes, ‘Five Easy Pieces’ is still one of his best.

And what happened to Matt Dillon? I know he hasn’t starved, but at the time of ‘Rumble Fish’, wasn’t he all set to become the next Brando?

Who knows what happened with Dillon. Maybe he just didn’t look after his career well enough. That said, he was utterly wonderful in ‘Drugstore Cowboy’.

How did your writing career develop? Did you always intend to write about cinema?

As part of my degree course, I studied for a year in the US, which I loved – in part because I was able to take some film courses but also just because of the pure gob-smacking wonder of the place. I went from the rain-swept terraces of Manchester to the rolling hills and forests of New England. It was like landing in Oz. Everything felt generous and abundant, whether it was the films they screened in the lecture halls or the town and countryside beyond the campus. And I think it helped me finally marry the illicit enthusiasms of the teenaged film fan with the demands of academia. All of a sudden it seemed possible to set your own agenda: to just write about what you liked and what you didn’t like and not worry about simply parroting what you’d been taught.

Anyway, I adored writing about films. But then I also adored writing about books and music, the other two pillars of my life at the time. What happened was that I then graduated, rattled around without much work and was then offered a three-week fact-checking gig on a film guide.

This in turn led to a part-time job ghost-writing film reviews for Someone Else; hiding out behind his byline like the inept nerd Zorro of film criticism. After a few months of that I started writing reviews for the Big Issue. That was the first time I actually saw my name in print.

It’s interesting that you use the word ‘adored’. That’s very positive! Most writers I talk to emphasise how much work writing is.

Spare me. Writing is one of the best things there is. Of course it’s hard and of course you never get it the way you want to get it. But the very act of doing it is a pure delight. I was thinking about this the other week, immediately after the screening of ‘The Master’ in Venice, when I had to file a review as quick as possible. I was sitting outside in the sun, in a quiet bit of the festival site, with my notepad on the table (ridiculously, I still prefer to write in longhand and then edit while typing) and a coffee to one side. And for that hour or two I felt utterly, uncomplicatedly happy. It’s all the other stuff that gets you down

Where do you think we are right now? Is this a golden age for movies, or are we in terminal decline? Somewhere in between?

My feeling is that we seem to have been sitting on the cusp of some major sea-change for the last five years or so. What we once thought of as independent US cinema has largely been co-opted by the studios. Hollywood still dominates, both at home and abroad, while popular Asian cinema still struggles to connect with mainstream audiences in the west.

At some stage, surely, the old model will break down. In terms of Multiplex fare, there will be room for big, lavish Chinese and Indian pictures that have a different aesthetic, a different way of looking at the world, than the Hollywood produce we’re used to.

In terms of other platforms, there will be a home for ultra-low budget, self-distributed independent fare – nominally niche fare that nonetheless finds an audience by dint of by-passing the old means of distribution. But all of this was meant to happen in 2006 or so and we’re still waiting. This can be a little frustrating but that’s OK. And no, we’re not in terminal decline. So long as there are still stories to be told, there’ll be a leading role for narrative cinema. It’s one of the best means of expression there is.

What films are you looking forward to in the near future?

I’m just back from Venice, so I want to see ‘The Master’ again. What else: ‘Looper’ looks good. ‘Django Unchained’? But who knows? The best films are often the ones that catch you completely unawares.

‘The Iceman’ sounds like it has potential, too. James Franco, Winona Ryder, and Ray Liotta is a pretty decent cast list, yes?

Please note my pained, reassuring smile. ‘The Iceman’ is … OK. Good, grubby sense of 1970s New Jersey. Lots of sideburns, car-coats, roller-rinks and glitter-balls. And Shannon is volcanic in the title role. But it all felt like a tour through familiar old terrain.

Which ones have you enjoyed recently?

One of the films that has stayed with me the most is ‘Holy Motors’ by Leos Carax, even though I’d hesitate to recommend it whole-heartedly. It’s messy and indulgent, often infuriating and sometimes actively boring. But the sheer exuberance and ambition of it is extraordinary and when it works, it takes the breath away. I’ve also loved the stylised documentary ‘Bombay Beach’, about the flotsam who wash up at a derelict resort in the California desert, and ‘Room 237’, a brilliant deconstruction of the madness and mystery of The Shining. And ‘Hunger Games’ was far and away the year’s best blockbuster.

Do you have a favourite era from cinema history?

I’m trying to resist saying the early 1970s. One, because it’s so dull and predictable and two, because it’s purely based on the output of about nine or ten film-makers in America and therefore pays no mind to the rest of the world. But it was a rich, knotty, vibrantly self-questioning period all the same; that perfect blend of energy and doubt. And by and large the films stand up.

Certainly some of the most committed and savvy filmmakers of all time were at work then. I know it seems crazy now, but in the Nineties, with Tarantino and the success of MIRAMAX etc, there were suggestions that a golden dawn was breaking. What happened to Tarantino?

But isn’t he your classic American success story? Precocious brat knocks the world on its ass then swallows the hype, slobs out on the throne, grows fat and lazy. The work-rate slows, the films aren’t as good. Right now I put him as Elvis Presley circa 1963. ‘Basterds’ was a mess, though I really, really liked ‘Kill Bill’.

Conventional wisdom locates cinema’s best era in the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930s to 1950s, with a last hurrah occurring, unexpectedly, in the late 60s and early 70s. Can you see a similar resurgence occurring any time soon?

To misquote Dickens, conventional wisdom is an ass. The past always looks more safe, satisfying and well-ordered than the present. When we look back at the ‘golden age’ of cinema, the tendency is to name-check a handful of great films and imply that they were representative of the whole, as opposed to the tip of the iceberg, just as they are today.

True. But I must admit to sometimes feeling tempted to follow that ass! I mean, I’m still discovering hugely enjoyable minor films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s – and I doubt someone several decades from now will be doing that with, say, the Noughties.

This fits in with one of my numerous pet theories: that there’s too little emphasis placed on the fun and enjoyability of movies. Thoughts on that?

Damn right. Of course they have to be fun or what’s the point of sitting there? Trouble is that ideas of what constitutes fun are likely to differ. I find Bergman and Bresson films to be glorious and stimulating, and I suppose that also makes them ‘fun’, at least for me. But yes, I do agree. There was a lovely quote from Joe Strummer once, when he said that every great song, no matter how anguished and desperate it is, is still a great song and is therefore, by its nature, saying that life is great and the world an amazing place to be in. I think the same applies to movies.

But back to the original point about the relative values of different eras. Infuriatingly, I suspect that the ratio is pretty much the same in any era: 80% crap, 15% great, 5% genius. The Holy Grail, I suppose, is for that 5% of genius to find an audience, to connect with a public beyond the true believers, to somehow speak to the wider world. It’s when that happens that we feel that we are experiencing a vibrant and important time for cinema.

Are ‘movies’, as we think of them, destined to take on aspects of other modern media (video games, etc.) and become something else? Or will cinema retain its distinctive features in an inviolate state?

The simple answer is yes. If anything I’m surprised it isn’t happening faster. I remember about 15-years ago writing a feature about a games designer who was making ‘interactive movies’ and blithely assuming that we were on the cusp of something big, and that by this point we’d be merrily remixing ‘The Godfather Part II ‘ and casting our mothers as a lead character in ‘Citizen Kane’ (or possibly ‘Psycho’). And yet for all that, the technology isn’t quite there yet. And possibly the medium itself is resistant: a combination of the studio system and the auteur theory has conditioned us to consume films as stand-alone Great Works from Great Directors. Even so, there has to be room for an interactive strand to modern-day film-making.

Is cinema, perhaps, facing a similar situation to that of pop music, in that the art form/medium has, to a large extent, run its course? If so, where will that leave film critics?

No, I don’t think it’s curtains yet. So long as the world needs stories, it will need films as a mode of telling them. The form will adapt and change. It has to, and it’s exciting and healthy that it does. No doubt film critics will have to adapt as well. The golden age of the lofty judge, unanswerable to his/her own critics is now behind us. In this time of open journalism, blogs and Twitter, even the critics have critics and their critics have critics too.

That said, there will always be a place for great writing and insightful criticism, if only because the best film reviews are often far more entertaining, illuminating and artistic than the films they are reviewing.

What was your general impression of the 2012 Sight & Sound Critics’ Poll? Were you surprised and/or pleased that ‘Vertigo’ knocked ‘Citizen Kane’ off the top spot?

Both surprised and pleased. Critics typically lament the conservative, herd-like tastes of mainstream audiences, but the constant presence of ‘Citizen Kane’ at the top of these polls reveals a similarly knee-jerk, unquestioning mindset.

I bet you can’t have been half as pleased as the magazine’s editor(s)? They seemed cock a hoop about it. Why were they so overjoyed? Were they right to be?

It was Christmas and their birthday and a cartwheel come all at once. Another poll with Kane at the top would almost have been the definition of a non-news story. Vertigo’s “win” meant that the rest of the media (BBC, the nationals) covered the result in a way that would never have happened otherwise. Presumably that had a knock-on effect on that month’s circulation.

But Kane (as with many Welles films), although it’s a revered classic, is still a very enjoyable movie, isn’t it? It’s never (or very seldom) ponderous or dull. ‘Vertigo’, surely, is open to accusations of exactly that: isn’t it a bit slow, a bit heavy going, in some parts? And its focus is so narrow. Basically, it’s about a creepy old bloke with a hard-on for an icy blonde in a nifty grey dress. Yet Sight & Sound celebrate it because it represents more of a ‘personal vision’?

Yes, of course Kane is great, hugely influential, the complete tool-kit and all that jazz. But I wonder how many voters were minded to properly re-watch and re-assess the film before rubber-stamping it again and again. I think ‘Vertigo’ is probably the better movie – or at least the one that stands up better today.

Well, of course ‘better’ is hard to quantify, isn’t it? At some stage, issues of subjectivity creep in. In what way do you think ‘Vertigo’ stands up better today? Couldn’t it just as easily be seen as more dated? The colour (gorgeous though it is) works against it in that regard, don’t you think?

Yes, Kane is more extrovert and obviously playful than ‘Vertigo’. But I’m not sure which one has dated more. It’s tricky. ‘Vertigo’ has dated in a curious way, in that it looks stranger, more mesmerisingly sculpted, more of an art installation than it did at the time. It looks like a proper ghost story, something ancient and alien, and so the passage of time has somehow worked in its favour.

Having said all that, I voted for ‘Psycho’ as my Hitchcock of choice.

Doesn’t ‘Psycho’ fall apart a bit at the end? How do you rate ‘Notorious’? Or ‘North by Northwest’?

The first half of ‘Psycho’ is so electrifying, such an insurrection, that it’s inevitable that the second half will suffer by comparison. But it’s all relative. ‘Notorious’ is wonderful. It jostles for position as my favourite Hitchcock. The three principals – Grant, Bergman, Rains – are extraordinary. There’s so much pain and cruelty and compromise in that film. It’s as though they’re all shuffling around with their guts hanging out and trying to disguise the fact.

Do you think the fact that Sight & Sound cast their net so much wider this time – polling so many more critics – affected the outcome?

Possibly, though I think it’s more likely a generational shift. Maybe the older critics grew up with Welles as their north star and the younger ones with Hitchcock. If so, 10 or 20 years from now, Vertigo will in turn be unseated by Raging Bull and that in turn by The White Ribbon or Avatar. (I’m being slightly facetious here, but only slightly)

Any favourites of yours that’ve been overlooked in the Poll? 

Well, you might say all of them, in that none of my top 10 made the official top 10. ‘The Searchers’, for instance, is leaden, charmless, myopic – yet it’s apparently the seventh best film ever made, whereas many of my nominees (‘Mouchette’, ‘A Canterbury Tale’) failed to make the top 100. Clearly that’s an outrage.

‘The Searchers’ was a key film for the Scorsese generation, though, wasn’t it? I think some critics like to admire the sort of films that people they like admire – racism and reactionary sensibilities notwithstanding. That said, it does look great on Blu-Ray.

Maybe that’s part of my problem with ‘The Searchers’. I’d read about it and was imagining this strange, complex, savage deconstruction of macho western heroics – like ‘Blood Meridian’ or something. And it’s nothing like that at all.

How about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’? I wouldn’t put that in my top 1,000. Do I need to watch that again?

No, I think you probably don’t. Admittedly I haven’t seen ‘2001’ for years myself, but there’s a reason for that.


When you look further down the list, in some ways there are even odder inclusions. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is at No. 14. Great film, of course, but is it Coppola’s best? I’m assuming that if they’d stuck to previous years’ rules, and counted ‘The Godfather’ I & II as one film, they’d have trumped it, right? Do you think they worried the combined weight of the Godfathers could even steal Vertigo’s thunder?

Actually I’ve never been a major fan of ‘The Godfather’. It’s not that I think it’s bad, just that it’s over-praised and a shade too grandiose and self-conscious for its own good. For me the list of great Coppolas would be (in descending order) ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Conversation’, ‘The Godfather Part 2’ and then maybe either ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Rumble Fish’. Probably ‘Rumble Fish’.

Are there any omissions that strike you as curious? I’m thinking of the continual snubbing of Howard Hawks?

The problem with Hawks is that he bounced between the genres and is therefore not regarded as a pureblood auteur. Of course some of his films should have at least been considered: ‘Bringing Up Baby’, ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Red River’, though please not ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.  I saw that again recently and it’s a ghastly powdered show-pony of a film.

For me, not having a Bogart movie in the top ten is madness. Personally, I’d take ‘The Big Sleep’ or ‘Casablanca’ over probably any film in the top 20, never mind the top 10. Don’t you think the auteur theory devalues the actors and actresses who were the chief appeal of the classic Hollywood era? When I suggest to people that we watch a particular film, unless they’re died-in-the-wool film buffs (and maybe even then), they invariably ask: “Who’s in it?”

Of course that’s the criteria most people use: “who’s in it?”. Or “is it funny/scary/exciting?” And I’d say that most of the time (maybe as much as 9 times out of 10) that’s a more reliable approach. Every director wants to be an auteur but very few possess either the chops or the opportunity to properly put their stamp on a film.

How important is the poll, these days?

Oddly I think it may be more relevant today than it has been for the past 30 years or so. We have such a deluge of bloggers, fan-sites, trolls and snap-judges out there that, possibly paradoxically, there is a deeper need for this kind of stately, slow-cooking, once-a-decade audit.

Sure. But how would you respond to the suggestion that it’s skewed too far away from classic Hollywood, and towards movies as ‘art’? Which raises the question: Can movies be art? (Nobody ever asks that about photography, do they?) Should movies be art? Aren’t they best when they’re adjacent to, or tangential to art? Art by accident, almost?

Good point. But isn’t that what all good art is anyway, regardless of the medium? Surely anyone who sets out to create Art with a capital A is destined to either dash themselves on the rocks of hubris or produce something that’s leaden and dead. Far better to tell a story, or paint a face, or join some notes together. If it’s later judged to be art, then congratulations, you got lucky. But there’s nothing wrong with feeling proud that you simply told a story or painted a face.

It’s a reaction to the instant gush that hails The Dark Knight Rises as the greatest motion picture ever made as well as being an important reminder of the depth, breadth and sheer longevity of cinema history. That’s said, it’s still largely preaching to the converted. People will still be saying The Dark Knight Rises is the greatest movie ever made.







One comment to Xan Brooks Interview

  1. Rumble Fish curiously remains one of Coppola’s often overlooked films. It refuses to conform to mainstream tastes and stubbornly challenges the Hollywood system with its moody black and white cinematography and non-narrative approach.

Leave a Reply