by James Clark
Life (2015), a film about a desultory movie star in tandem with an ambitious photojournalist, appears to be absorbed in the delivery of visual liveliness, charisma. Put into play by Anton Corbijn, a major photographer in his own right, dating from long before his movie work, there is one other aspect which changes everything: Corbijn’s photography has been focused upon rock and roll—videos, band promotional photos and portraits. The star, James Dean, could be treated as a glamorous, gifted “discovery” like that of so many others in the history of Hollywood, which is to say, a heart-throb in the mold of Adonis or Venus, having no significant historical mooring. However, if we keep our ears as well as our eyes open, we will, I think, have to accommodate James Dean’s being a fairly alert sensibility at the dawning of rock music, a participant of that restlessness being touted, in the words of an LA disc jockey listened to by the photojournalist, Dennis Stock, as he works in his darkroom at the film’s very beginning, “…new country blues song… everyone’s talking about…” Stock completes his processing the print, the DJ yells, “Don’t touch that dial, ’cause now we’ve got Lightnin’ Hopkins!” And Lightnin’ (a rock guitarist [“country blues” being his tag] ahead of his time and an inspiration for hordes of killer guitarists in subsequent decades) detonates a note which sets off an A-bomb flash of white void to magisterially dovetail with: the red glow of the lab (and its faintly grinding sonic atmosphere) and its glowing electrical red filament jumping into view like a nasty alien approaching a space-ship wall; and, moreover, the red flames of the title, Life. A cut to Stock’s driving along night-time LA streets includes Lightnin’s razor-sharp pop which puts to shame the tepid torch-singer polluting the event he sees fit to attend, making sure that his camera and supply of flash-bulbs are tip-top before exiting his black sedan (black sedan; and it’s the year 1955), and approaching the party mall where Hollywood director, Nicholas Ray, is staging a party with a view to future movie magic we soon doubt could withstand the Lightnin’ test.
Stock soon encounters the unctuous yet remote host and reminds him of a set of snaps pertaining to the gender-swirl film, Johnny Guitar, which he covers physically with that motion to his ear recalling Johnnie Ray, the crying male torch singer doing nothing much to make a difference in the immediate post-War era. In that same vein of someone not cut out for heavy work, the less teary Ray gushes that he’s pretty much completed casting the upcoming Rebel without a Cause, which cues an entrance by actress, Natalie Wood. “She’s my Rebel Lady,” he explains, and now we’re certain he’s someone not cut out for impressive work, however popular that movie may become. Stock has been slightly ill at ease through this wade into unwitting grotesquerie, unable to maintain eye contact and piteously embarrassed about trying to get Ray’s attention to the results of his being on the set of that guitar movie nowhere near rock bona fides. But, now concentrating on his instrument of choice with a view to snagging a fortuitous visual hors-d’oeuvre or two, he recaptures that sombre alertness seen with the aid of early rockers. (There was, however, a last, quite remarkable wounding of him involving smirking painfully and looking down at the floor, where a secret passage out would be the best scenario, at Ray’s final words for him, “Enjoy it!” [coming across as an ultimatum].) He heads out to the patio and pool, the musical delusion screaming out, “I want your kissing…” A girl emerges from the pool and, seeing his gear, she calls out, “Oh, you’re the guy from Photoplay, right?” In following her boyfriend’s (or agent’s) demand, “Take a photo!” he corrects, more closely to his real self, “National Geographic, actually;” and as he leaves the power-couple he scowls and mutters, “Photoplay!” Therewith, a young man alone at the bar out there catches the gist of his malaise. “Trouble ain’t that there are too many fools… but that the lightnin’ ain’t distributed right… That’s Mark Twain…” That’s also this movie in a nutshell. Its bringing Lightnin’ out for an encore, to pitch bean-balls, mooting strictures about patience and generosity promising to test our two protagonists to the limit.
We are, therefore, not so much directed to a “real life” narrative that involves unusual traction, but rather the infrastructures of those progressions and their overturning the famous accomplishments. The one citing a homespun American sage introduces himself as “Jimmy” and the shakiness of the cigarette he handles and the voice he handles is a match with Stock’s unruly eyes, and thus we have a furtherance of a premium upon fruitfully rising to an occasion not so easily fielded. But they shake hands in being able to regard each other candidly, and Jimmy invites Dennis to a preview, at a place called the Electro, of a movie he’s in. “I got a little part in the new Kazan film…If you wanna come we could meet at Googie’s for coffee after…” In pulling Jimmy away to meet some people who could be useful to both of them, careerist Ray— “C’mon, you won’t get the role hanging out there…”—provides a taste of impediments not to be disposed of by lightning, or anything else.
At Googie’s diner, a tentative version of musical breakthrough fills the air, while Stock, who had found Jimmy’s in-fact-star-turn to be at a par with Lightnin’, proposes, “We should definitely take some photos.” The boys waste little time specifying that what virtues the film possesses have nothing to do with director (Elia) Kazan or the screenplay (based upon a Romantic-era-facsimile by novelist John Steinbeck). Though the rock playlist at the Hollywood haunt may be meagre it does keep us on the chase of that raw musical genre and not the obsolete melodrama being the staple of the industry. “It was a bit overdone, no?” Jimmy moots. “Not too melodramatic for you?” Dennis flounders here, looking away, and then, twigging on to the link of devastation implicit in melodrama, eye-contact no longer a mountain to climb. “No…No, it’s great!… Maybe throwing the money to Dad was a bit…” Jimmy follows with a sense of relief, “I know what you mean! They wanted fake tears at the end!… It’s Hollywood…” Dennis, far less fatalistic than Jimmy, it appears, insists, “You’re doing something else… Not Hollywood!” He downplays studio promotions in favor of what is now a long-shot, namely, “doing my own assignments.” And, caught up in the sense of a brave new world, he declares, “But I ain’t one of those red carpet gorillas.” Next day, Jimmy, on a red carpet at a premiere with a girlfriend more famous than him, and being disturbed by that discrepancy—a bit odd from a figure so attracted to disinterestedness—notices Dennis amongst the red carpet gorillas and needles him. In response Dennis tells his soul-mate that what all this bemusing incongruity is about comes down to making the upstaged careerist famous.
Perfect soul-mates with respect to the matter on tap constituting a dream to be wary of, we have a photographer looking the part of a hustler amidst cinema “artists”—who would, as plans don’t go smoothly, snap back at his skeptical boss, “I’m a goddamn artist, too!”—seeing some Lightnin’-style soul in Jimmy, who, at Googie’s, in reply to his, “So, you wanna take some photos?” puts over, in his feathery voice, “Oh, I don’t know…” Rapid motion lover Jimmy drives Dennis on his motorcycle to the house he shares with hopefully celestial girlfriend Pier Angeli; so unsuited to such a vehicle and such a speed is the photographer that he’s in a shock-induced sweat and has to hurriedly repair to Pier’s bathroom to freshen up. (Stock is always to be seen in a dark suit, white shirt and tie; Jimmy favors casual, bohemian apparel.) Whereas Dennis has mentioned, with a sense of occasion, Life magazine as the best medium for letting the world see Jimmy’s bona fides, while that guest is washing up Jimmy does a clever and edifying mime about the prospect he has almost yawned off. He picks up the current edition of Life from their coffee table and places the cover portrait of solid citizen movie star, Spenser Tracy, over his face, an odd fusion, to say the least. More wobbly lightheartedness then comes about, with the biker smooching the angel on the sofa, proposing marriage and noting that Dennis would be the perfect wedding photographer. Dennis, who had been regarding this lightweight scene with misgivings (probably finding there shades of Kazan) scowls and dryly replies, “Yeah, that’s my aim in life.”
We receive a more accurate version of Stock’s aim in life on overhearing his phone call to his boss back in New York, at the Magnum photo service. He prefaces his attention to Jimmy by telling his mentor he wants to deliver a “photo essay” on “an unknown actor who won’t be unknown for long.” Facing the old pro’s incredulity, he elaborates, “He’s unusual, just trust me—he’s interesting…There’s an awkwardness I want to capture. Something very pure…He’s a symbol of a new movement or something.” Symbol of a new movement? Or something?
A more accurate version of Jimmy’s distractedness comes into view during his being prepped in three nearly consecutive board rooms at the Warner Brothers Studio. In the first instalment a less charismatic character, also in Kazan’s East of Eden, namely, Raymond Massey, gives a vastly reluctant Jimmy a puppy dog script for a successful PR effort on behalf of the new supposed masterpiece. “I got to tell a compelling story alongside an exemplary cast…” Going on to revere Kazan as a reflective powerhouse, consummate craftsman and heart of gold, Massey, scion of a Toronto oligarch (Life having being filmed in Toronto and environs and Corbijn unable to resist that redoubt of reaction), becomes not just a boring stiff but an insidiously effective boring stiff. Jimmy is whisked off to confront a production team tasked with discovering what the spacey property might be best suited for. As he grabs the mike recording his preferences there is an old tea set on a counter to help him provoke the rocker in him. We’re struck by his lack of eye-contact in firing up a head of steam. “I mean, I just wanna do good acting… challenging roles, wherever that takes me…” From there he jumps all over the suggestion that The Boy from Oklahoma might be the kind of film for him. (A beautiful irony being that, as time goes by, The Boy from Indiana is a story line very dear [too dear] to his heart. “Not The Boy from Oklahoma!” he sneers. “Did you see it?!”
As soon as the flippant and insulting tape reaches mogul and tyrant, Jack Warner, Jimmy (someone has told him to wear a tux), hears just how little room for improv his line of work affords. The first subject is Rebel without a Cause, his involvement still up in the air. Warner links it to the wider range of Dean’s presumably long career. “I’m not sure we should emphasize the rebel in you, Jimmy…” Then he gets down to giving Dean a stiff shot of the law of the jungle he’s been able to flout hitherto. “If you’re not a good boy [for instance, serving time as a bikini contest judge to add to his renown] I’m going to fuck you till it hurts very much… Would you like to go back to the CBS parking garage where we found you?… We just want the best for you, Jimmy…”
Warner had warned Jimmy not to follow up his announced desire to catch up with his friends (at the Lee Strasberg Method acting centre) in New York. But after the embarrassment at the premiere of the torch-singer melodrama, A Star is Born, he ships out with a free-spirited sailor’s kitbag—knowing himself to be quite indispensable; and not 100% sure that Hollywood is his cup of tea. “That stuff [like Rebel] is so elusive,” he tells a far less discriminating Pier. Refusing to think of her as a friend, but only a lover who can’t take Hollywood as lightly as he does, there is a haunting moment of his exit forever, his tip-toeing out of their bedroom and, in sync with his closing the door, her eyelids closing, the devastation of her face in this connection conveying the stresses of elusive cogency.
Stock soon follows what has become more “awkwardness” than “very pure.” Dazedly—that thrum of ragged sensuality—leaving his young son (on an unprecedented visit to his ex-wife) while in snowy Central Park, he locates the would-be model and, applying the same desperation as an hour before at the park, he uses the unimpressive gambit, “I mean, seriously, can we do something?” “No, we cannot,” is the answer. Jimmy—an exponent of never a straight yes and never a straight no—persuades a winging-it Dennis to join him at a press conference for East of Eden, where he learns that Pier has married one of those obsolete, damn crooners, close kin to torch singers. On the way to Jimmy’s learning the bad news, Dennis photographs him getting a haircut—not the Times Square funkiness he had in mind, but (he would say) you never know. Jimmy, bemused, says, “You’re somethin’ else!” by way of admitting that those “very pure” moods are not where he really lives. On the rebound from Pier, who tends to favor predictable conformity— “Sometimes I think you’re an idiot. The rest of the time I know it”—Jimmy heads to that self-styled avant-garde, Method actors, where he would be widely feted for his sophomoric earnestness and fecundity in cultivating archetypal moods and attitudes, precisely the hokum being decried at Googie’s. After witnessing a class where the buzz-words are “You gotta feel it!” Jimmy and some rebels, with Stock in tow, hoping for a singularity amidst generalities, occupy a bar, pop bennies and poke the juke box which yields up tepid rock and tepid jazz. Dennis, excruciatingly ill at ease and with no tolerance for that kind of White Lightnin’, tells a girl from Iowa he doesn’t dance, and she joins Jimmy and future pop star Eartha Kitt, part of the orbit inasmuch as her association with the Katherine Dunham Dance company would have included instruction from Lee Strasberg. (In Corbijn’s previous film, A Most Wanted Man , the impresario-cop-protagonist declares, “I don’t sail.” His Bach-like logic [his name being Bachmann] could be called Method; his business with Brahms could be called Lightnin’.) The dancing is precious; and, in a sort of antidote to this nightmare befalling the “very pure,” he, now in a depressive frenzy fuelled by disappointment and stimulants, motor-mouths, to the girl being obviated by ironically-named Eartha, “There’s something in the air, you can feel it all around… Something’s changing… in music, in photography and everything… and Jimmy’s part of that!” Veronica, the also-ran from Iowa, remains preoccupied with Jimmy the former Indiana farm boy with a safe patina of cool, showing that safe-side on the dance floor with Eartha. “Shhhh,” she tells Stock, waving him down without looking at him, and never to be troubled by eye-contact difficulties. Jimmy and Eartha, aping a golden couple, head for his pad. Dennis and Veronica head for the washroom and some barnyard mating. On her departure to an unbroken mainstream, she leaves her bennies (like supplements derived from a vet) and tells him, “I hope you find what you’re looking for…” [clearly not what she’s looking for].
Stock’s setback is crowned, with him, next day, vomiting over his mistake-like and yet strikingly balanced son. He mentions this episode to Jimmy when they finally get on the same page about a shoot which had seemed to be dead in the water. Jimmy won’t touch that unpleasantness; but something has induced him to join with Dennis in his search for a faraway sense of pure. The pull of being golden having, temporarily at least, eclipsed the odiousness of the workplace (He had understood the sudden defection of Pier to be due to the crooner’s being more famous than he), there he is, at Times Square, ready to look unforgettable. It’s a rainy afternoon, but that surly light elicits the devastation both sensibilities are in thrall to, a touch carrying consequences Dennis has some comprehension of— “We live in hope”—while the Method guy remains pure melodrama. He wonders how Dennis got involved with camerawork, and on hearing of his joining the Navy at 16 and then snapping the sailors and charging them a dollar for a picture, the only means of income he had in relation to the civilian world, the discovery was sobering. Jimmy lurches forward into the gusty downpour and Stock backpedals, saying, “Just keep coming at me… That was great, Jim.”
Jimmy had mentioned to Dennis his intention to visit his family on their Indiana farm, an antidote to the manipulative side of a job he was having serious reservations about. At that point, Stock white-knuckling the Life project, wanted as short a relationship as possible. But after weathering the foul weather at Times Square, he was far more bullish about the yield of unlikely magic the foreign territory could provide. No longer in awe about a supposed charismatic genius, he was now a student of the somewhat wildly misleading electricity popping up for a few seconds from the cyclotron of the human heart. As the boys fill out that pilgrimage to Indiana, they fill out for us a shock of modern rigors you might imagine to be more in play in a big city. On the train ride to slow pace, Jimmy, touching a Method hot button of personal radiation, tells of his mother’s death when he was still a small child, an event settling him in Indiana with an uncle and aunt. His mother had been a lively inspiration for his acting out parts; and on the train with his new parents there were two other callings that brought him to the brink of tears, which is to say, they elicited rare visceral commitment, of indeterminate length. One was the migration, over several long stops, from the freight car at the end of the train where the coffin was, to the locomotive at the beginning and its being a fount of speed. “It felt so good!” The other was the porter’s wellspring of disinterestedness. “He was utterly kind.”
This prelude of largesse runs into extreme wintry cold. Stock, never having been on a farm, finds himself to be utterly adrift within a wildly delighted rural family re-establishing not only a beloved member, but a relative redolent of potentially legendary majesty. At the dinner table, after grace, Jimmy refers obliquely to the sacrilegious grace Dennis delivered in the dining car. “Dennis knows a wonderful grace.” The auntie chirps, “You can say it tomorrow.” This sham elicits the question, “What religion do you belong to?” Hesitating for quite a while and finding a bad enough scene getting to the health-hazard level, he finally gets out, “Oh none, really…” Suddenly the room subsides into interplanetary silence. But they rally in inducing the guest of honour to make a toast (“To Mom”), which cues up a 24th birthday cake (again, Stock bewildered by the news coming out of left field) marched to the table to the strains of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” A favorite young nephew suggests he stay for the rest of the month and therewith the special local screening of East of Eden. Jimmy strings him along as sounding that’s a good idea; and that causes Dennis to ask, in execrable form, “I thought you said two days?” Jimmy, brimming with witty good feelings, squelches the spoilsport with, “Yeah, but I was talkin’ about a couple of Indiana days…” Dennis struggles to muster a smile to go along with the mirth of the rest of the company.
There are ways of profiting from this slide; but, at least at this point, Stock can’t bring it off. After the birthday festivities he’s smoking in the dark on his bed, still immaculately dressed, an ashtray on his chest. The not so rhapsodic side of “something in the air” has become insistent and it’s written all over him. Later, plodding along with hopefully great photo ops of Jimmy working in the barnyard, the latter remarks, “I’m disappointed in you.” “You’re not the only one,” the self-critical pro declares, his elegant wardrobe a mysterious work in progress. In the dining car, Jimmy describes his country cousins as Quakers, “…the religion everyone likes… They’re quiet…” The second night in, Dennis is back in the dark bedroom, smoothing out the crease of his pants on a table by the window. The quiet uncle probes Jimmy, by a fire near the house, right under that window, “So your friend, he’s a real city guy…” The somewhat restored country guy is right on cue to seal a deal. “I know what you mean—prickly, pushy, opinionated and rubs people the wrong way, I guess… But then again he is a New Yorker [the New Yorker wannabe surfacing] … I felt sorry for him there in New York. He was following me around like a lost puppy…” The curious uncle laughs and continues the quiet inquisition. “What is it that he wants?” The quisling tells everything he knows, which is not close to the mark. “Ah, what he wants is one thing. But to tell the truth I don’t think he knows what he wants. He’s one of those guys who can’t seem to get out of his own mind.” Dennis looks down at this disappointment confirming that the photogenic mediocrity is a flash in the pan. The uncle has the last word: “Hey look, your firewood has died.” Next morning Dennis indicates to Jimmy that he can’t be ruled by Indiana days, and will leave as soon as possible. His bile boils over and he ungenerously alludes to the eavesdropping before maintaining that his host lacks cutting edge courage. Then he goes back to that bedroom cell, breathes painfully for a while and then goes down to say he’ll stay for a few more days. Jimmy, who never loses his farm-fed equanimity during this episode, proposes a drive into town, where a carload of high school kids invite the VIP (and his friend) to the annual Senior Ball (aka Sweetheart Ball, sock hop). Before embarking on that eventful trip, Dennis, watching Jimmy reading with his nephew, asks, “How do you make it so easy?” On returning home, there’s a call from an irate Jack Warner who introduces to the star hurdles far from easy to him. Warner is in turn far from amused about “the name on everybody’s lips” refusing to attend the premiere. On the other hand, he informs what he referred to at the marketing moment as “the little shit” that he’s the lead for the aptly named Rebel without a Cause. The catch is, “From now on you don’t move a muscle without [studio flunky] Roger knowing where you are.” Arriving at the Sweetheart Ball with his less than Lightnin’ wattage conga drum, he gives a facile little speech about the importance of taking the time to appreciate everything, while bearing in mind that the future is too hot to handle. He prefaces his bon mots with, “I’m [only] good with a script.” Though Dennis is hardly ecstatic about this turn of events, including James Dean autographs for everyone, a girl asks him to dance and he does, and his face lights up with a big smile. The middle-aged amateur band has a lead singer who plays an accordion, and against all odds, he’s actually pretty good! “She’s gone, gone, gone! Such a night!” Next day, as the odd couple decamp, Jimmy is close to tears. “Everything changes so fast!” After Warner’s call, Jimmy burrows in the past in the form of the pensees of Indiana oldie, James Whitcomb Riley. “We must get home. How could we stray like this?” On the flight to Hollywood and the portrayal of soft rebellion, he’s latched on to the Method-compatible personal experience, “And oh so very homesick we have grown… We must get home again.” On the other hand, Dennis, who on that abandonment in Central Park barked at the hapless child curious about his light meter, “That’s not a toy!” sits on the fire escape with him, asks, “Wanna try it?” and shows him rudiments of how to snap a picture. The little guy nearly drops it and Stock just smiles. Tellingly, it is the last time he ever saw his son, though a note at the end tells us he worked on his “goddamn artist” role for many years and died in 2010, at the age of 81.
We’ll never know how far Dennis proceeded over and above his cryptic artistry. On seeing his output from that painfully protracted study, his boss, who would frequently tell him that he was not yet an artist and that he had no right to claim such status because only long-standing experts could make such a call, tells him, “Your makin’ art!” Jimmy sees the mock-up for Life and says, “These are beautiful, Dennis! They came about buried under all that stress!” The shot at Times Square, defining for so many viewers the quintessence of the modern rebel, became one of the most well-known and reproduced photos of the century. Jimmy would be dead—in a car-race mishap—a few months after the release of that project which was designed to propel him toward a long and dominant career. Long before the publication in Life, Dennis had shed the delusion that the subject was what he first imagined. Jimmy races up in a taxi and yells to Stock in the window above, “You gotta drop everything! I’m serious! I start rehearsing in three weeks. I gotta learn my lines…” [unspoken: “I gotta find some facsimile of Indiana]. Peering through a barely open window (or is that a slowly closing window?) of opportunity, Dennis tells the spent force, “I gotta stay here… See you…”
The title, Life, reaches beyond the agency of fame, fortune and ideology, and fixes upon sentient dynamics and the strange calculus rewarding the small and punishing the large. In saying, “I gotta stay here,” Stock embarks on something more demanding than fostering the dominance of a more vital regime than that hitherto calling the shots. His close observation of Jimmy and his many soulmates and partners could elicit something “very pure” alright, in disclosing powers they adamantly refuse to embrace; but at the same time that disclosure would seem to remove such loyalty from the forum of enjoying hegemony, of enjoying one’s best light going from strength to strength. Instead, the kind of distinguished, rather solitary incisiveness to be sensed in the output of Stock’s career would include a degree of shot-in-the-dark chivalry or odyssey. The Vermeer-like panache of this almost entirely ignored film seems to me a masterpiece fated to be hidden away in some sub-basement.