Our regular posts here at The Digital Bits will resume tomorrow, but in the meantime, we hope you'll join us as we take the day to honor our dear friend and fellow Bits contributing editor, Barrie Maxwell, who passed away on July 10th after a valiant fight with brain cancer.
October 23rd, 1947 - July 10th, 2012
It's strange how you meet the people who become hugely important in your life.
One day back in late 2002, I got an e-mail from this polite and gracious Canadian fellow, who said he was interested in writing about classic film for The Digital Bits and wondered - would I consider reading some samples of his writing? Now when you run a site like The Bits for any length of time, you get many such requests. The trick is finding those rare souls who not only possess deep film knowledge but can also write well. When you read the work of a really talented writer, it feels effortless - words flow like quicksilver and you simply lose yourself in the ideas being presented. It took but a few sentences for me to realize that Barrie was a keeper.
Working with Barrie in the weeks that followed, we quickly conceived what became his long-running Classic Coming Attractions column. His first installment appeared on December 18th, 2002 and as each new edition appeared he simply astounded me with the depth and breadth of his knowledge of cinema. Barrie quickly gained a loyal following - not just among the site's readers but the Bits staff too!
Over time, as our friendship grew, I began learning ever more fascinating things about Barrie. He was born in Birmingham, England to Irish immigrant parents, and moved to Canada when he was just four years old. I knew he was retired when he began writing for The Bits, but I was stunned to discover that neither the cinema nor writing were part of his earlier career. Barrie graduated with Master of Science degree from the University of Toronto, and served as the Superintendent of Arctic Meteorology for the Atmospheric Environment Service of Environment Canada. As someone for whom science has always been a passion, I was thrilled to learn that his area of expertise was Arctic climate research, especially as it related to global warming. In fact, Barrie contributed to the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, so we had many an exhilarating conversation on the topic.
Barrie and I would exchange e-mails every couple of days... calls maybe a couple times a month. I'd pick up the phone and hear the quiet but clear excitement in his soft-spoken voice, and be certain he'd come up with some new insight or interesting film-related topic to write about. More than once these insights inspired and became entirely new columns on The Bits - The British Beat, High-Definition Matters and most recently Classic Hollywood MOD. You'd get the sense that there just weren't enough hours in the day (or days in the year) for Barrie to watch movies (in his aptly-named "Great Escape") and write about them - a trait that all of us here at The Bits tend to have in common. Our exchanges covered films we'd seen recently, genres that interested us, bits of film history and trivia, DVD and later Blu-ray releases that had been recently announced or that we knew were in the works, film restoration. Conversely, we might talk a bit about physics, astronomy or history... even share cat stories. (Both of our families include more than one!)
Believe it or not, in addition to his four regular columns on The Digital Bits, Barrie also found the time to host a weekly radio show, called Street of Dreams, on his local 100.9 Canoe FM in Haliburton, Canada. For two hours each Wednesday night, Barrie toured his listeners through the Great American Songbook - playing classic gems of vocal and instrumental music from stage and screen. Clearly, Barrie's passion and energy to share his love and knowledge of film was boundless.
So too was his generosity: When my wife Sarah and I each lost parents to cancer this past year, Barrie's was one of the first and strongest voices of support to be offered, even as he struggled to fight his own battle with the disease. His last column here at the site was turned in just a week before he died, written with every bit of his usual care and detail while on what would become his final trip to visit family. "Well, I was able to catch up on the MOD news enough to be able to put this week's Classic MOD column together after all!" he wrote cheerfully in an e-mail with the doc file attached. The e-mail was time stamped 6:30 am.
Barrie... you dear, sweet gem of a human being!
Sadly, as things happen in this strange Internet-connected world we live in, Barrie and I only ever met in person twice. One of those occasions was a lovely dinner enjoyed together in Los Angeles with our wives. How I wish there had been many more! Nevertheless, despite a entire continent and more than 20 years of age between us, Barrie and I were kindred spirits.
Barrie's writing on The Digital Bits over the past decade has helped to spark and encourage the passions of countless film enthusiasts. More personally, his friendship has enriched my life immeasurably - a debt I can never adequately repay.
Barrie is survived by his lovely and steadfast wife Sue, his son Terry, his sister and mother - both named Anne - and two cats, Bogie and Stella. They... and we... miss him terribly.
Using the links below, you'll find more memories of Barrie written by his family, as well as thoughts from Barrie's fellow Bits contributors and other industry colleagues. Sarah has also created a Flash gallery filled with personal pictures so that those of you who've enjoyed his writing over the past decade can have a glimpse of Barrie's life. As you'll see, he lived it to the fullest. And we've included a YouTube link as well - Barrie's obituary, as read on air on 100.9 Canoe FM (the Haliburton, Canada radio station where he served as a program host) shortly after his passing.
If you'd like to send a message of support to his family (or just share with them your own memories of Barrie and his writing) you can do so via the contact form on his bio page here at the site. Your support and loyalty meant the world to Barrie over the years, and it will certainly mean much to his family too.
Finally, some of you have asked if Barrie's family has selected a charity for those who wish to make donations. After consulting with Sue and Terry, we've agreed that the best way for Barrie's Bits readers to honor him would be to support a cause that was dear to him - classic film preservation and restoration. As such, we'd like to suggest that you make donations in Barrie's name to assist the work of the National Film Preservation Foundation. You can do so here at this page on their website. You can even pick a specific "lost" film to help save.
On behalf of his family and friends here at The Bits, I want to thank you all again for honoring Barrie's memory with us, and for your loyalty and kindness to him these past years. No words can describe how grateful we all are for it.
Memories from Barrie's Family
Sitting in Barrie's study loft I am surrounded by his film books, files, the many Blu-rays and DVDs he had yet to catalogue and view in his home theatre, and pieces of paper by his computer where he jotted down his film review notes and new ideas.
I remember our first date... of course a movie, My Left Foot with Daniel Day Lewis. The remainder of the evening was discussion over dinner of the depth the film reached in us both. He had a wealth of knowledge of the actors, their life history and the stories behind the film. That was just the beginning. I was hooked and my knowledge and appreciation only grew as we shared books, films and many discussions over the years. He even convinced me to watch a few more violent films out of my comfort zone for greater understanding of their context. (Raging Bull was not one of them.)
Barrie never tired of telling me how, as a boy, he disappeared to the theatres in Toronto to watch double bills of Westerns or Science Fiction films while his parents thought he may have been elsewhere. Barrie was an avid reader of science fiction and had a large collection of paperbacks, including a few originals. Many of the first films produced in that genre grace our video shelves.
I have memories of packing and unpacking dozens of boxes containing the VHS taped movies, all classic films and most of them black and white. The labels were meticulously written in fine print with the title, year and genre. Barrie knew every film and just where to locate it! These have all long since been transferred to DVD, yet our film library continued to grow exponentially.
Barrie's first filing system consisted of handwritten lists of all the films of specific actors, and the studios and years involved. He later perfected the system on his computer. Barrie had an incredible memory for detail which never faded even through this last year.
Barrie's love of classic film drove him and defined him. The opportunity for early retirement gave him the gift of turning to his film world full time and he never looked back. Film music in particular provided much enjoyment for him, as he felt it added so much to the poignancy of the films.
His involvement with The Digital Bits connected Barrie to so many people who shared his passion. He formed firm and committed friendships with those who, like him, felt strongly the importance of restoring and preserving classic films. His writing came easily because of his commitment to this cause.
When we built our home in Haliburton for retirement, Barrie's dream was to design his own theatre room. He was meticulous in the planning and building after we discussed each phase closely together. The theatre experience has brought such joy to us over the years, but especially when family and friends come to share a movie. Barrie would speak about the history of the film, and the actors, directors and producers of each. His lovely voice and smile mesmerized us all. This experience was repeated on many an evening as we enjoyed countless films together. Barrie named his theatre "The Great Escape"... one of his favourite films, at the top of his list of ten.
Barrie wrote his columns and reviews, for the most part, in the early morning. In earlier days, he stayed up late to finish his writing while thoughts were still fresh in his mind. But over his last brave year, the medications he was taking affected his sleep patterns. He would be up and raring to write at 3:00 am and sit down at his computer then filled with new ideas. When I wandered up with coffee at 6:30, his excitement was still palpable. He had often finished one or two columns by then and couldn't wait to talk about them. (He also wondered why he was feeling a little tired after that!)
The Digital Bits has been Barrie's film family and truly gave him strength to carry on throughout a very difficult year. When he felt his writing was compromised he worked even harder to overcome the obstacles and felt so much more hopeful and fulfilled.
We as a family thank you deeply for that. He was a class act in every way. Barrie... we miss you.
Sue Maxwell, Barrie's wife
I don't think I'll ever forget the day my father took me to see Return of the Jedi in a small town, to one of those grand old movie palaces which sadly don't exist anymore. An enormous chandelier hung down over an ocean of balcony-seating and it felt like you had entered into a magical place. I was very young then so my father may have snuck me into the movie under an over-sized coat, I don't know. But that memory, of holding his hand and coming into that theater, is something I'll never forget. It introduced me to the world of movies in a most striking way, almost (but not exactly) as if to say: here is something sacred that I want to share with you. I think that was the moment when I first knew that I loved movies.
When I was in my teens, but still not a convert to black and white, I was forced against my will (as a sort of penitence) to watch some stupid old movie called Citizen Kane. If it was black and white (went my horribly limited thinking back then), then it was boring and not cool and would drag on and on, probably with people in frilly costumes belting out lines in fake British accents. But I sat down with my dad and then the images - the "No Trespassing" sign and that mysterious opulent castle beyond - began to work on me. I was hooked. My dad looked at me in a sort of "I told you so" way. I spent the rest of high school hanging out with like-minded friends, attending midnight screenings of cult classics, obsessively viewing the entire Howard Hawks catalogue and debating the merits of John Ford or lesser-known Bogart pictures from the late thirties, screwball classics or more obscure film noir titles. I shared these times with my father and we felt united in our love of the movies - a love that he passed on to me. I'll forever be grateful for that subtle conversion. Thus I'm probably one of the very few of my generation to know and love the character actor William Demarest, or to even know who Claude Rains is (he remains unknown in some circles, regrettably).
I'd like to say something about my father's final year, when the long shadow of illness was hanging over him. He never gave up his optimism in the face of very bad odds, but a certain medication he was taking woke him up very early in the morning. I now live and work abroad, so I would open my inbox over a cup of coffee at 9 am (my local time) and send my dad an email... and then receive an immediate response. Which meant, due to the time difference, he was wide awake and working at about 3:30 or 4 in the morning. I knew intuitively that he was working through a pile of classic titles for his readers on The Digital Bits, with great love and attention to detail, and I felt reassured that he was doing something he loved so dearly. He lived his passion until the very end. It was his mission and became, I imagine, one of the principle ways in which he fought this tough battle. He did it all out of a deep love for the movies.
Terry Maxwell, Barrie's son
Barrie was 9 and 1/2 years older than me and maybe because of that difference, we had a very close relationship; perhaps more so than many brothers and sisters where age proximity tends to create competition and where younger sisters are just a "pain". Maybe Barrie thought that too but was just really good at hiding it!
Barrie left home after university when I was a young teenager so I don't really have any memories of him sitting and writing. I did observe his early interest in classic film though. It may have started in his late high school years but it's his involvement while in university that stands out for me. Back in the day, when computers were the size of a room, data input was entered on cards. They were made of tan or yellow heavy construction paper, maybe 3.5" high by 8" wide. Barrie was in his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto studying Engineering Science and must have had a lot of computer courses, because a lot of these cards came home. Maybe he used them for his studies, but mostly I saw them used to record the very first of his classic movie reviews. He would check the TV guide for appropriate titles (I remember staying up once to watch Stage Door with him) and afterwards, use a card to carefully record the title, director, producers, major players and his rating of the film. I believe the rating was a simple 1 to 4 star system. He may have even made room for key comments, but I'm not positive about that. At the time, I thought this was all very organized and loved to flip through the card boxes when he wasn't around. His neat writing and commitment to keeping the records impressed me, even if watching the movies didn't! I have often wondered if those cards are still around anywhere.
Anyway - I thought you might appreciate hearing that his passion for film started early and his knowledge was built through many years of watching and recording his impressions.
Anne Maxwell, Barrie's sister