Life

LIFE. US. 2015, 111 minutes. Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane De Hahn, Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton. Directed by Anton Corbijn.

September 30, 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the death of emerging actor, James Dean, in a road accident. This film moves into his early career and serves as an effective memorial for his life and death.

The Life of the title is a reference to Life Magazine which devoted a story published in February 1955 to Dean. It also refers to the short life of Dean himself.

This is actually a photography story. While the object of the photography is Dean, this is the story of Dennis Stock, the freelance photographer who discovered his fascination with Dean would be shared by the public and who worked on Dean to agree to a photostory for Life Magazine.

It should be mentioned that the director, Anton Corbijn, has been a photographer for many decades, still photos, documentaries, music videos as well as several films including Control (the story of Ian Curtis and Joy Division), a story of an ageing agent played by George Clooney, The American, and a version of a John Le Carre novel with Philip Seyemour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man, all very interesting in their way. Corbijn knows what he is doing and has quite an intense empathy with his portrayal of Dennis Stock.

For movie buffs, the film also offers an interesting glimpse into Hollywood at the beginning of 1955, with the film narrative taking place over a few months, from the promotion of James Dean’s first starring role, East of Eden, to his audition for his next role, Rebel Without a Cause, and Dean’s having to make a decision about his ambitions and what was necessary to fulfil them and the issue of studio control, not just of his career but also of his personal life, especially for the promotion of his movies.

Again, film buffs will appreciate the sequences with Warner Brothers mogul, Jack L. Warner, and his ruthlessness, which he had been exercising for decades, and his egotistic decision-making over every aspect of his films and of his stars’ careers. Although he appears in only three sequences, Ben Kingsley’s cameo as Jack L. Warner is one of his best performances.

For the modern generation, there will be a lot of identification with Dennis Stock, his back story of being in the Navy at 16, with a pregnant wife at 17, leaving his wife and child, wanting to pursue a photography career, going to galas and premieres, taking on-set photos, being published in magazines, but always looking for the breakthrough story. He is played by Robert Pattinson (who has been getting more and more significant dramatic roles since his Twilight years).

The narrative of the film is quite angst-ridden because persuading James Dean to agree to the photo-shoot is a prolonged, quite prolonged, process and Stock, making every effort, phone calls, visits, conversations, following Dean to New York City, notes under the door, living with frustration, is a thread of this drama.

And James Dean himself? He has been the subject of several telemovies and documentaries and audiences who know his films will be expecting not just an impersonation but a dramatisation of his character. Audiences may not be familiar with the actor Dane De Haan, who has been very effective in quite different roles in such films as Lawless (a slow-witted, crippled young man involved in bootlegging), the young hero in Chronicle, playing a wilful, hedonistic character in Kill Your Darlings, and the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spiderman 2).

He makes James Dean an interesting character, seemingly nonchalant, casual in the face of Hollywood, cheeky during press conferences, in a relationship with actress Pier Angeli, hoping for better roles, the touch of the rebel especially against the control by studio heads and agents, with his mumbling communication and moodiness. It is something of a shock to find that at this stage of his life, he has just turned 24, his character still being moulded and a life before him.

While Stock tries to influence Dean, Dean invites him to go to Indiana to meet his family, with a powerful scene on a train as, quietly, Dean tells the story of his family, the death of his mother, her funeral, revealing something of the personal intensity behind the facade. It is something of the same in the scenes in Indiana, on the farm, Dean reading stories with his nephew, agreeing to attend the local school dance and making a hesitant speech (saying he did better with scripts).

A good word for Joel Edgerton as Stock's agent, John Morris.

Most audiences may know that East of Eden was a success, as was Rebel Without a Cause and, Deans last film was Giant. But, six months later, Dean was dead at 24, the life that was before him gone.

The final credits are worth watching because the actual Stock photos are shown – and we realise how carefully the director had established this context for each of the photos and how skilfully he had set up the action of his film exactly like the photos.

This is a fine contribution to American cinema history.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out September 9 2015.


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