The rules are simple. The good get spared. The bad get spoiled.
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by Luke Davies
Life is the story of a Life magazine photo shoot. A famous spread on James Dean at the beginning of his all too short career. It is the story of famous photographer, Dennis Stock directed by famous photographer, Anton Corbijn. Anton is one of my photographic heroes but he is not known as a film director. And there is a good reason. Life the movie plays like a photo spread in the magazine. It doesn’t feel like a movie at all. It is beautiful. Every cell is a work of art. The performances are good and the story and the subject is interesting. But because Anton has no grasp of pacing or timing the movie is slow and boring. I liked it somewhat because of the subject. This sort of thing is right up my alley. But it is not a good movie. It’s slow and boring and badly directed. Even the generic title is bland.
Robert Pattinson plays Dennis Stock, the photographer, before his long career when he’s just starting out and struggling to make a name for himself. Dane DeHaan plays James Dean, fresh from his first big role in East of Eden, weeks before the premiere, unsure if he’s making the right decisions in his own, just about to blow-up, career. It is a great set-up for a movie about a short-lived friendship and a photo spread in Life magazine that changed both of their lives. About the artist’s process.
The main problem with Life is a lack of pacing (ain’t that the truth). Anton Corbijn, one of my favorite photographers, lingers too long on beautiful screen shots and languishes past the point of boredom. Anton sets the stage for the iconic shots from the magazine. The photographs are the real subject of the movie. The origin story of some of the most well-known photos of James Dean. Everybody knows the one where he’s walking in Times Square in the rain (I’ve had a post card and a poster). Or the one where he’s reading to his young cousin at the table. You can feel Anton’s reverence for the photographer and for his work and I enjoyed watching that.
But the movie isn’t good. The main obstacles are James Dean’s rebellious attitude and Dennis Stock’s self-doubt and these aren’t very exciting. A better director could have made them more tangible, made us feel it with the pacing or the music. Tried to make inner turmoils more physical. While trying to capture Dean’s (and Dennis’) angst on film, Anton Corbijn should have tried to show us more of their internal struggles externally.
My favorite director, Stanley Kubrick, started out as a photographer. You can see it in every frame of every movie he’s ever made, but he incorporated an observant personality, a love of the human experience, and a great way with actors with his masterful visual storytelling style. Corbijn does not have these skills and it’s clear.
I enjoyed watching the making of these iconic photos but as a movie, Life fails to entertain. It’s a great story with fine performances and beautifully photographed images but all of those elements do not form an enjoyable cinematic experience. Too bad.
I really did want to like it…
…as much as I love these photos.