Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Anton's Eye

Most of the Directors I love are notable for their visuals.
That may sound obvious, even dumb. But it is strange quite how many film directors get by with a rudimentary grasp of visual storytelling and no distinctive visual style. Even fewer have what could be termed a great, or even good, eye. In the last decade or so the rise of the young director schooled in the world of advertising and the pop video means that your average action blockbuster is a visually bombastic experience. These are young directors with a great grasp of the technical side of filmmaking. They understand lighting and cutting, they use movement within the frame in concert with movement of the camera, they allow CGI to work the magic of which it is plainly capable (but all too rarely responsible). A much-maligned director such as Michael Bay, for example (and he is older and of a different generation, but something of an example and idol for some younger directors) is almost a great visual stylist. He possesses a good eye. He tosses off amazing shots in his films, scatters them like confetti - beautifully lit and composed into some sublime tableaux - but he never allows them to develop a rhythm, he snaps them off before their beauty can even really register or resonate. And so many younger directors, in Hollywood at any rate, drunk on huge budgets and new technologies and raised on MTV and Jerry Bruckheimer, do the same.
What is the point of having a good eye if you don't understand what to do with it?

Anton Corbijn was a photographer before he began directing. A big-name, big-time photographer. Which suggests that he had a pretty decent eye.
Well, not only that, Corbjin had an utterly individual style. High contrast black and white portraits were mainly his thing, stretching back to his early work shooting Joy Division when both he and they were unknown.

It was a natural step for Corbijn to move into pop videos. Always able to form close bonds with his subjects because of his access - he became U2's favourite photographer and shot the covers for The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby - and with the talent of making all of his subjects look darkly glamourous, what was remarkable about this new career was just how personal and identifiable his style remained throughout. He kept the high contrast on occasion, together with the ineffable ability to make his subjects look eternally cool, effortlessly iconic. Naturalism was never a feature of his video work, just as it had rarely been important in his photography. Instead he embraced a highly stylised aesthetic, making for some stunning and unforgettable work.
Always evident was that eye of his.

Nirvana's 1993 "Heart-Shaped Box" was given a visionary video set in a cartoon world of exaggeratedly blue and red skies, crucifixions and sinister crows. Cobain spent much of the song out of focus and frighteningly close to the camera when he and his bandmates weren't miming on what looked like a set from The Wizard of Oz or on death-watch in a hospital room. The look seen in the video would prove extremely influential, and now it instantly dates itself as a product of the early 90s, but it maintains a power through Corbijn's imagery and how well it fits the music, which is, of course, the key to success with any pop promo.

His video for Joy Division's extraordinary "Athmosphere" combines his own photography of the band and Ian Curtis in particular with eerie footage of hooded figures engaged in some act of ritual worship - a funeral is the suggestion -on a desolate beach, to great effect. Its the best connection between his work as a film maker and as a photographer, featuring as it does rudimentary animations of photo-sequences.

Aside from U2 and Joy Division, Corbijn has been most closely associated with Depeche Mode, contributing album covers as well as photography and video direction. His video for "Personal Jesus" cross-pollinates his sensibility with that of a spaghetti Western director, with almost surreal results. The band, in leathers and cowboy hats, wander Almerian locations, all colour and sunshine drained from them. The "Enjoy the Silence" video features Dave Gahan, wearing a crown and cape and carrying a deckchair, strolling across mountainside and cliff-top. The rest of the band feature in shots of them emerging from the blackness of a tunnel-mouth and staring directly at the camera. With these two videos and the rest of his work with them, Corbijn had given Depeche Mode a powerful and unique visual identity which they continue to use - and tweak - today.

As countless young directors have shown, however, the move from pop videos to feature films is a forbidding and difficult one. Perhaps it was to Corbijn's advantage that he is not a "young" director, for his feature debut, Control (2008) is confident, assured and seemingly effortless. A wrenching, intimate biopic of Ian Curtis, its a film with which I have many problems. Narratively, its far too generic and predictable in its adherence to the rock-biopic template which has resulted in some truly awful cinema, from Walk the Line to The Doors and La Bamba. It suffers from having been released in the same decade as Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People (2002), which covers the same ground far more fleetingly but is much more interesting, original and amusing (and represents a brilliant example of what a rock biopic can be in the right hands - Winterbottom's film is a post-modern comedy, an Epic social and cultural history of Manchester and a great piece of rock criticism all at once). But Control works. It understands the dark power of Joy Division and the Curtis myth. It combines rock biopic with something of a kitchen sink drama, all stained wallpaper and cups of tea, and makes that seem a natural fit. Sam Riley is hugely impressive in the lead and the music is given the proper weight within the story. In fact Corbijn summons good performances from his entire cast, suggesting that the charm he wielded on rock stars to get what he wanted works just as well on actors.

But most impressive is how the film looks. Corbijn and his cinematographer Martin Ruhe ensure that every frame is beautiful. The lighting, composition and movement are staggeringly accomplished, and never at the expense of narrative or spatial coherence. This suggests that Corbijn has manifest natural gifts as a visual storyteller. The film also maintains some continuity with his earlier career: it looks, just as many of his pop promos did, like one of his photographs, and that is definitely a very good thing. Indeed, the black and white photography seems to enhance the detail and attention he gives to the film's many competing textures. His eye is superb, finding the beauty in a Rochdale council estate or in a band sweating their way through a set in a provincial club.

Corbijn's new film, The American, is a drama about an assassin, on the run and awaiting his next target, who hides out in a small Italian village and becomes involved with some of the locals. Again shot by Ruhe, the rather second-hand premise is reportedly transcended by the quiet, subtle "European" style of the film. Based on Control and Corbijn's other work, this is eminently plausible. The below trailer, meanwhile, makes it look like The Limits of Control (2009) with a little Antonioni thrown in or Jason Bourne by way of Jacques Audiard. Either of which would be more than fine with me. I would go anyway, because its generally worth seeing the world through Anton's extraordinary eyes.

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