Things change over time, often for the worse, many would argue. Businesses that once were personal and local consolidate and become cold, corporate, and cookie-cutter. Barberland takes a look at classic barbershops and how they reflected the culture of their times. While it doesn't become didactic or preachy, it definitely sends the message that the old barber shops are a dying breed. And even though Ice Cube's Barbershop movies have reminded viewers of the camaraderie found by the old revolving barber's pole, there are fewer true barbershops than ever.
At one hour long, Barberland is probably the perfect length. This is an interesting topic and the film manages to discuss a few diverse aspects of it, but it doesn't reach too far. There's no Ken Burns grandiosity here, just a simple, modest look at a specific part of American culture. The film points out some interesting origins of barber history: Barbers once were more like surgeons, including leeches and bloodletting in their repertoire. The film also features pretty frank segments on the complex racial component of barbershops (from the segregation of barber schools of the past to the differences between cutting black and white hair) and the social needs that the classic barbershop fills. Dr. Mic Hunter (who wrote a book on barbershops) explains the social theory that people need a "third place," i.e. a place that's neither home nor work, that allows them to separate themselves from the responsibilities of those places. The sometimes bawdy atmosphere of the classic male barbershop provided that.
Other interviewees discuss the secondary value of the old-fashioned shave-and-a-haircut as a source of all-important human contact. One barber mentions that his elderly customers, particularly widowers, probably get their only physical contact with other people at the barbershop. It's a sad idea but it makes sense.
The film is built mostly out of interviews with barbers. Sometimes the editing flows from one interview to another in a smooth way, relating topics that play off each other. The barbers (mostly from California and Illinois) discuss their backgrounds and their love of the job. They all expect to work well past standard retirement age and seem to get their love of life and their identities from the profession.
The film doesn't always delve too deep, however. One barber glosses over his experiences as a Holocaust survivor in a moment that made me think of the extraordinarily painful concentration camp barber's interview in Shoah. But Barberland still does a nice job of covering its subject matter (including a look at the last barber's pole factory in the US) and gives a nice glimpse at a way of life. The best sequence shows one of the barbers with a long-time customer who dispenses borscht belt disses at breakneck speed. When the barber, almost crying with laughter, asks why he keeps insulting him, the customer says "My insults are just words. Your insults I have to wear on my head." Awesome.