Anton Corbijn Inside Out
Synopsis: An intimate portrait of Anton Corbijn as he travels the world as a photographer, filmmaker and video artist. The documentary reveals the drama and conflict inherent in his psyche.
Photographer's inner picture caught in moving doco.
his photos can reveal a sort of ‘emotional X-ray’
Like a lot of music fans of a certain age, I knew the photography of Anton Corbijn before that name meant anything. And like most, I was haunted by what I saw. Then, in the late ‘70s, ‘Rock photography’ seemed to be about stage action and contrived image making. I remember seeing a photo spread in the English music paper NME of a band called Joy Division, who was not then famous, but Corbijn’s shots would help make them so. In some photos, you couldn’t make out the faces of the band members. The framing was deliberate, the black and white, inky and sad, the settings mysterious. I did not know then that Corbijn knew the band as friends. I did not know that Joy Division was made up of four Manchester lads who liked to drink and swear. The shots did not seek to capture anything so mundane. They connected instead with emotion, like music does. In ways that are hard to define, I heard the music of Joy Division in all its delicious contradictions in Corbijn’s shots; spacious and claustrophobic, alienated and open, introverted and elusive.
Later Corbijn would make a biopic, his first feature film, a drama about them and the tragedy surrounding their singer and songwriter Ian Curtis. Called Control (2007), it’s compassionate, stirring and rich, and remains one of the best ‘rock movies’ ever made. Confusing the work with a man is always a folly but still, here, in this feature film documentary, Corbijn seems a very human mess of conflicts and troubles; far from the eloquent majesty of his finest work. He explains his dilemma is that of “a man whose art has raced ahead of his personal development”: “I’m lagging behind as a human being,” he tells director Klaartje Quirijns.
Deliberately oblique, rambling, observational and always fascinating, Quirijns’ film is a portrait of an artist in late career. Here Corbijn is enjoying tremendous success; there are films to make – we see him on set shooting his second feature The American, released in 2010 – gallery exhibitions to prepare and many photo shoots with the likes of U2 and Metallica. He pursues a work ethic that would tax anyone half his age, a fact that worries his family, who are interviewed here; their doting affection, one of the film’s high points. They worry over Corbijn’s health and hint that all is not well with his inner-life.
Quirijns, using a highly mobile handheld camera, often shoots Corbijn in transit; in vehicles, on trains or else restlessly pacing another hotel room. Some of the observational moments are revealing, especially the stuff when we see the artist at work.
Off the job Corbijn seems uneasy; his already mellow voice, tentative, his long lean body somewhat hunched, his eyes unable to maintain a steady gaze – it’s like he’s backing out of a strong key light. On a shoot there’s a complete transformation; his movements are definitive, his speech takes on a robust quality. He tells lots of jokes. Folks seem to like him.
Quirijns rejects the TV arts feature structure; there’s no strict chronology, no formalising of personal history. She lets Corbijn sketch in the basics on camera. Born in the Netherlands, the son of a Dutch Calvinist pastor, Corbijn’s upbringing was comfortable, emotionally complex and rich in fantasy and music. In younger days he would take ‘self-portraits’ disguised as famous rock stars: Lennon, Buddy Holly, et al. We see the artist interview his mother; she reveals that Corbijn’s father was not the love of her life afterall. As for Corbijn’s own romantic entanglements, they are conspicuous by their absence. He confesses that he has a way of getting close to his subjects but forming intimacy with people seems out of his reach.
Artists like Bono here often talk of Corbijn’s unique ability; the way his photos can reveal a sort of ‘emotional X-ray’. Critics have complained that Quirijn’s interviews are duds; to be sure, Corbijn’s subjects are hardly pithy or clever about what makes the work exciting and deep. But I think the director has left in their awkward mutterings to make a different kind of point – they’re moved by the work and feed off the experience.
Corbijn complains near the end of this quiet film that what he desires is a connection with people in his day-to-day existence, and you get the feeling he’s not talking about love and desire. He admits, in a confessional tone, that that is a regret. He’s lonely, melancholy, and reflective, feelings often associated with his work. Now his late 50s, he talks of his youth: “You feel at ease in a lonely way of thinking, but I’m not unhappy now.” Corbijn says this while lying on a couch; he makes a joke about psychiatry probably because Quirijn’s probing questions make this genial man so uneasy. Corbijn appears as a guy who wants to give of himself but can’t. That must be a special kind of agony. The miracle of Quirijn’s film is that Corbijn’s angst comes off, not as some self-indulgence, but something deeply felt. It feeds the work and the work is beautiful.
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