As usual, lots of mesmerizingly-good cinema to see and report on at the ongoing Berlinale. I’m a die-hard Cannes-goer but somehow Berlin being held in February seems to work pretty good timing-wise for a lot of the more vital and less-established filmmakers. The wild, young things go to Berlin and the older, more reliable filmmakers make their appearance in May. This might have something to do with the people in charge and their own preference.
Fifty nine year-old Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn made his name as a photographer. In 2007 he made his directing debut with “Control,” the story of the life of the tortured Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Corbijn’s work in fashion magazines just as much as cinema is the outward sign of a fixation with youth culture and rebellion and their slow seeping through in popular culture. The director’s new film “Life,” which recently screened at the ongoing Berlinale, deals with just this kind of thematic.
1955, Los Angeles. A starving photographer (Robert Pattinson) is hired to shoot the mugs of VIPs at a party. He meets a novice actor who chain-smokes by the pool and wears a white t-shirt on a wiry body, cutting a vaguely standoffish figure. It’s James Dean. Corbijn smartly didn’t cast Robert Pattinson to play the lazy and photogenic Jimmy. The latter is played by Dane DeHaan, instead. The Allentown, Penn.-born DeHaan is perfect as a study in complacent, lazy and unbearably narcissistic youth. Pattinson, de facto superstar and poster boy for “Twilight” series, has been moving heaven and earth to distance himself from those roles, in particular by appearing in Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the stars.” The recalcitrant heartthrob wades around “Life” anonymously, occasionally getting swallowed by the light of his own camera’s flash.
The film is based on the true story of Dennis Stock, the photographer who got the most recognizable James Dean portraits published in Life Magazine in the days when he chased a salary working for Magnum. Under the probing gaze of Corbijn’s camera lenses, the encounter between the two men quickly evolves with Stock realizing that the unknown actor is the perfect embodiment of his times, of youth.
The budding friendship that develops between the two lets us in on their failures and their revels (which feature Eartha Kitt), Corbijn recreating the well gazed-upon scenes of now-mythical portraits: the one in which Dean is standing in Times Square, that of him on his family farm in Indiana.
What Corbijn’s cameras highlight so well is less the icon than everything that goes with it. Like, for example, the opposite of the fascination Stock held for Dean which is, in fact, nothing more but the accentuating of his own failures. He (Pattinson is fascinating to watch) enviously asks the actor: “How do you make it look so easy?”
This is Corbijn territory so the film’s frame is meticulously executed with gray gradients, and pale blues. The filmmaker throws in credible reconstructions of pre-sixties era, the feverish atmosphere of the clubs and the Actors’ Studio. Corbijn’s obsession with the picturesque quality of being photogenic is coming into its own (as it were, Pattinson is a none-too-shabby choice for Corbijn’s pursuit of esthetically-pure cinema).
What’s striking about “Life” is the frankness with which Corbijn describes the photographer’s emotion regarding his subject: at first he is fully inhabited, obsessed by it, even. Then, as in all hit-and-run professions, once the shot’s in the can his interest starts to wane, Stock wanting to move on. The pictures get published in Life and James Dean, a lost kid, remains what he has been throughout the film: a raging icon in the body of an idiot who’ll die a few months later in the crash of his sports car.