Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 15, 2015 7:12 am 
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Lightning in a bottle: a camera's eye

Anton Corbijn's Life is a touching, elegant little film about the memorable encounter of Dennis Stock, the Magnum photographer, with James Dean when he had just finished Eaast of Eden and was on the cusp of fame. Stock and Dean are in a sense both struggling to establish themselves as artists. Stock meets Dean at a studio function. He sees clips of his performance, and, sensing his shy sensitivity and his extraordinary talent, thinks of doing a photo story abut him for Life Magazine that could make them both famous. Corbijn's movie title reminds us what todays's world may have forgotten: Life magazine in its Fifties heyday encompassed its name. Appearance in its pages could indeed make you famous, once and for all. This is a movie about a photo shoot and a brief friendship. Wispy topics, you may think. But the photos were to become the stuff of legend and the brief, doomed friendship (Dean died later that year) was to follow Stock for the rest of his long and successful life as a photographer. Corbijn, with Dane DeHaan as his James Dean and Robert Pattinson as his Dennis Stock, is trying to catch lightning in a bottle. He's chasing moments so evanescent and so iconic they elude capture. But be patient and you will encounter subtlety here. Corbijn is a master of mood rather than plot.

Stock, chasing will-a-the-wisps himself, at first has much difficulty accomplishing his scheme. He can't seem to rope in the shy, elusive Dean, and his ideas for the shoot aren't accepted by his Magnum boss. Stock's career so far, though very promising (Magnum was the crème de la crème of photo agencies), remains sketchy, his life stressful. He's still being forced to do "red carpet" Hollywood photo shoots; estranged from his wife, guiltily neglecting his seven-year-old son. Corbijn is good at capturing Stock's unease. Dean is having difficulties of his own with the studio's need to manipulate his image; a chilly Jack Warner is crudely embodied by Ben Kingsley. Personal mysteries trouble the actor, which the film is less able to convey. Stock winds up seeming more overwrought than the moody actor. But this is about him, and the hard struggle to forge iconic images. It's not a Dean biopic.

Dodging the studio, Dean keeps a friendly line open to Stock, who shoots him in Hollywood getting a haircut; is terrified by his motorcycle driving; then follows him to New York, where he shoots him at his hangout, the Actors' Studio. They run into Dean's friend Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary) and they jitterbug to jukebox jazz on bennies. This wipes out Stock, who's overwhelmed by nerves and stress. His Magnum superior wants him to go to Japan at his own expense to do a publicity shoot of Marlon Brando. The Life[ Magazine project seems doomed. Dean is supposed to show up for the New York premiere of East of Eden; his hire onto Rebel Without a Cause isn't yet sure.

With a mix of escapism and artistic fervor, on impulse the two young men (Stock 27, Dean about to turn 24) go out to the farm in Indiana where Dean grew up. And the heart of the legendary Life photo story comes there: Dean bongoing by livestock, Dean kibbutzing with a nephew, Dean at a high school dance -- a unique mix of offbeat shots that this time meet Magnum approval and go to Life. Not a cover story, buried in the back -- but including an image of Dean hunched in a big overcoat on a grey New York street that will become the ultimate icon of the sensitive loner.

Dean was dead in seven months. Stock, who turned to jazz musicians for a while after this, was to make many great photos, none so memorable as those he made of Dean in 1955. Anton Corbijn, who began as a still photographer himself, was the man to make this movie. Dane DeHaan isn't as handsome or striking as Dean. It's been suggested the roles should have been reversed with Pattinson, who is handsome. But if Pattinson is the star, DeHaan is the actor. His delivery of Dean telling Stock about his last train ride with his father is a show-stopper. The scenario seeks to infuse Dean's scenes with mystery and poetry. Perhaps a little too often the movie alludes rather than recreates. But the scenes, especially the ones on the farm, are shaped by a cameraman's keen eye.

Life, 111 mins, debuted at Berlin 9 Feb. 2015; nine other festivals. US theatrical release 4 Dec. 2015 Watched in VOD (Amazon) 14 Dec. 2015.


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