Life is an unusual film for several reasons, not least its global credentials. Written by an Australian, directed by a Nederlander, photographed by a Dane and starring a Brit it tells us about an encounter with a Hollywood icon. Oh, and most of it was filmed in Canada. The focal point of the narrative is a single iconic image – that of a young James Dean walking in Times Square, New York on a rainy March morning a few days before the première of his first film East of Eden in 1955. The star of Life is the contemporary matinee idol Robert Pattinson here playing freelance photographer Dennis Stock, whose image of the ‘moment’ appeared in a Life magazine spread, helping to create Dean’s star image and boosting Stock’s fledgling career at the Magnum photo agency. James Dean in the film is played by Dane DeHaan. Stock’s book, Fifty Years Ago, recounting the shoot was published in 2005.
Director Anton Corbijn is himself a photographer, best known for his work for UK music magazines photographing late 1970s and 1980s New Wave artists which in turn informed his first film-directing venture, Control (UK 2007) about the tragic life and musical career of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division in the late 1970s. Knowing this and then avoiding the assumption that Corbijn is more interested in Stock’s story than Dean’s is quite difficult – especially when Corbijn has said as much himself.
The production has some distinguished backers including the former head of film at Channel 4, Tessa Ross and See-Saw Films, the UK-Australian company behind The King’s Speech and earlier Control with Corbijn. For Life they were able to put together a budget of between $10 and $15 million, small by US standards but considerable for a European film. It’s strange then that Life had only a limited release on 48 screens in the UK in September 2015 and will not open in North America until December. The opening was not a success and the UK distributors seem to have had little faith in the film. It is all too easy to lose a film in the current UK super abundance of new releases each week. Perhaps Life will find a more comfortable home on UK television’s Film 4 in a few months time? After its Berlin opening and the restrained critical response, the US market possibilities are not that encouraging.
Part of the problem for audiences is that the film depicts events of 60 years ago and because those events feature numerous famous names and faces, a modern audience without detailed knowledge of the period might not grasp exactly what is going on in several scenes. I know all the historical figures but they are not played by ‘doubles’ so it sometimes took me a few minutes to recognise that I was watching Nick Ray or Raymond Massey on screen portrayed by actors who had some of the same physical characteristics but obviously not all. All of this is relatively minor however, compared to the film’s big challenge in presenting a believable James Dean. Dane DeHaan is a highly-regarded young actor and his performance succeeds in getting across aspects of Dean’s personality alongside some of his mannerisms. It doesn’t matter that DeHaan is not a ‘double’ for Dean but it’s a tall order to play someone so distinctive and to my eyes so beautiful. DeHaan’s face is just a little pudgy and I found that did bother me. The hairstyle he has been given seems too exaggerated (compare the images above). On the other hand, studying portrait photos of Dean it’s clear that the make-up artists and costume designers have tried to replicate the photos and to a large extent they succeed. Photos from the original Life magazine shoot and the published magazine spread can be found on the Time-Life website and many of these are staged in the film.
The main interest in the film should perhaps be Robert Pattinson who has been choosing independent films now for a few years and he has a good go at bringing to life (ouch!) Dennis Stock – a not very likeable character in some ways according to the script. I enjoyed the visit to the farm home in Fairmont. It is Dean who is at ease here and Stock who becomes agitated. You do wonder how much he wanted to understand Dean. If you are a Dean fan you might find these rural scenes the most affecting.
Life got some poor reviews. Peter Bradshaw called the film “a laborious, lugubrious movie maintained at a somnolent cool-jazz tempo – a waxworky piece of American icon worship”. I’ll agree that the film is slow but that’s not a problem. Bradshaw also makes the more interesting comment that as far as Dean’s sexual identity is concerned the film “. . . keeps its tense hints at the subject largely in a heavy closet of its own making”. That’s a fair point. The script and Corbijn’s interpretation of it seem to be caught between several possible narratives. In some ways the film seems more interested in the machinations of Warner Bros. and its studio publicity machine than in the taking of the Life magazine photos. So we see Dean having a fling with Pier Angeli who had just finished filming Silver Chalice with Paul Newman (who could be seen as Dean’s rival for young male leads at the studio). The script shifts her marriage to Vic Damone back a few months to make this work. On the other hand we don’t get much about the photographic process Stock used. My viewing companion, a keen amateur photographer, complained that the sound of the shutter on Stock’s Leica was far too loud – indeed the 1950s Leica was noted for its quiet operation. The film soundtrack emphasises the sound of the shutter so that Stock’s obtrusive shooting is more obvious. I don’t think that the script actually mentioned Magnum as the agency – but surely it was as well-known as Life magazine itself?
I found Life absorbing and puzzling. I think I learned something about James Dean as a person but I don’t think I learned much about Dennis Stock or about his form of portraiture or magazine feature photography. I’ll certainly look closely at James Dean’s three films again.