Written by Day Moibi


True to Life?

Day Moibi’s back from her travels, so to reacclimatise we sent her to watch the James Dean biopic Life. Here’s what she made of it.

Photos: Caitlin Cronenberg.

Photos: Caitlin Cronenberg.

I was 12 when I first watched Rebel Without a Cause. By the time the credits rolled, I was longingly anticipating my rebellious teenage years. James Dean had depicted an over-stylised romantic, misunderstood time, where my confused, yet inventive spirit would ultimately go shooting into all directions. The year 1955 seemed to be where it was at, and James Dean seemed to be the man I had to have: the ultimate bad boy.

So it’s a shame that Anton Corbijn’s biopic of how Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) attained the broody and honest photos of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in his iconic Life magazine spread, is so obvious.

Dean died soon after the photos were taken, which leaves only the magnetic images of a pea-coated, handsome young actor. He would later become the face of the nonconformist disaffiliated, middle-class youth movement and the face on many teenage girls’ walls during the era.

Life evades the issue of James Dean’s sexuality, which would have greatly added a dimension to the chemistry between DeHaan and Pattinson.”

Standing on the rainy streets of New York and beating a conga drum at home on an Indiana farm, DeHaan masterfully captures that charismatic honesty that lies behind the eyes of Dean. “I just want to do good acting… I’ll go where that takes me,” is his response to a facile journalist; yet Life manages to elude the soul and artistry that it hopes to depict.

The film holds no subtlety and is cheesy and overstated in its perception of the late 1950s. The same can be said for Robert Pattinson’s vision of Stock, which is competent but dull. I have had more fun stretching my hands than I did watching him play the determined photographer. Perhaps it was the over-elaborate statements about the time and the contrived comments on Dean’s eventual stardom that makes Life so elementary.

Life 3Luke Davies’ script is by-the-numbers and clichéd. The title is presumptuous and the film is stylised to the point of painful perfection (which happens to be the opposite of life itself.) When Ben Kingsley pops up momentarily as a pantomime Jack Warner to whip the Dean back into line, fitted with a cigar and thickly-gelled hair, it is nothing less than overdone.

As an authentic portrayal of the time the film fails; as a biopic it goes no further than a typical Hollywood effort. It evades the issue of James Dean’s sexuality, which would have greatly added a dimension to the chemistry between DeHaan and Pattinson, who manage to dance separately but never together in the film.

The film is exceptionally romantic and creates a moody trance, heightened by bewitching cinematography. Yet this is only what has become expected of Corbijn after he graced us with the rise and fall of Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control and, most recently, made A Most Wanted Man, which happened to contain one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances as well as being a mesmerising thriller.

“I’m disappointed in you,” drawls Dean to Stock when fabricating the famous tractor shot. I echo these same words to Corbijn.

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Written by Day Moibi

Day Moibi is an aspiring philosopher who spends most of her time thinking about cheese, the absurdities of life and film.