Wisely not attempting to go the standard-issue bio doc route with a subject who is clearly anything but standard-issue, “Anton Corbijn Inside Out,” as the title suggests, instead takes a more impressionistic, intimate approach to the celebrated photographer and filmmaker, and in the process creates a thoughtful film that is as much an homage to the creative process as it is a tribute to a man.
Klaartje Quirijns‘ documentary, which enjoyed its world premiere in Berlin yesterday, sets out its stall early: the first shot, of a reflective Corbijn lying on his living room couch talking in soft-spoken, subtitled Dutch, has about it the feel of a psychologist’s session, something acknowledged a little later by the man, playfully. But it means from the beginning we are prepared for a highly subjective stance — the film feels as though it’s less about him than from him, from the ‘Inside Out.’ And if we emerge with a clearer picture of Corbijn’s career and working processes than we do of his personal motivations and demons, that’s only because Corbijn himself seems to find it so much easier to discuss his work than himself. At one point, asked an incisive question about why he seems to feel pessimistic about his chances of enjoying a lasting, fulfilling relationship, he prevaricates uncomfortably, then deflects. “Shall we go inside?”
This focus on Corbijn-in-his-own-words is not to say we get no outside perspectives. In fact, using a hand-held real-life approach that is a million miles away from the staid, studio-bound talking head format we might expect, Quirijns gets insights from friends, family members (notably Corbijn’s sister, usually shot while cooking or cleaning up in her kitchen) and famous clients alike. There is a motion and a dynamism to these mini-interviews that gives the film a kinetic, off-the cuff feel at times. Often interviews are snatched moments on the sets of one of Corbijn’s shoots; often he is there himself, as in the U2 and Metallica/Lou Reed sections, so we get more of a feel for his interaction with them than premeditated, staged interviews could ever have given us.
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The extent to which Corbijn has utterly devoted himself to his career, his vocation, is extraordinary. His life outside photography comes across as ascetic, monklike, his work ethic is such that his family worry for his health (with good cause, it is hinted at the end). But it was music that brought Corbijn to photography, not the other way round. An early passion for it, and a desire to be around the people who made it led to the snapping of a photo, and a career was born. And it is fitting that Quirijns herself uses music to great effect. Helped by the stone-cold genius of many of the tracks at her disposal (songs for which Corbijn shot promos or band photos) we get slices of Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Arcade Fire, R.E.M. and U2 among others. And the soundtrack is edited intelligently, with bigger music-drenched scenes butt-edited up against contrasting footage of Corbijn taking a walk, or home alone talking haltingly to the camera, with just enough echoey reverb over the cut to make it clear a point is being made. We draw the conclusion that the silence of Corbijn’s solitary, ascetic existence might be one reason he seeks out music with such passion: ever since what his sister suggests was a rather lonely childhood, he has sought to fill that void, and the human connection he finds it hard to experience in life, he can experience through music.
And then there are the photographs. The shots featured in the film scroll up the screen captioned at the end like a credit roll, appropriately, because they are like players in their own right. These iconic shots of some of the greatest musicians of the past few decades look as fresh and vital and just as fucking cool today as they ever did. Which in itself opens up a question the film rather fails to address: Corbijn talks a lot of trying to capture the true essence of a person but often what he creates is to the rest of us, if not glamorised, then certainly recognisably cooler and more aspirational than the raw image. Reportedly Bono has said that he hopes one day to look as cool as Corbijn makes him look; the paradox that exists between the impulse to aestheticize and the impulse to be truthful is something we would like to hear Corbijn’s thoughts on. After all, he is anything but unaware of how his vision is often put to use in the creation of a mystique around a band, or a brand, and is ultimately there, not necessarily to be truthful, but to shift more units.
Not a huge amount is made of Corbijn’s shift into feature filmmaking, nor probably should there be – from photography to promos to features seems to be a fairly logical progression, and moving back and forth between the formats as he does, it’s clear that each in its way is simply an expression of the same creative impulse. But he does talk a little about “Control” and there is a nice section shot during the filming of “The American,” which gives us some idea of Corbijn as director. It includes a fascinating bit where he blocks out the climactic gunfight scene of the film in a manner which, as far as we can remember, is exactly what made it into the finished movie.
On the more personal end of the spectrum, the film also features a particularly touching encounter between Corbijn and his aged mother. As their time together goes on, it is revealed she is a little muddled in her mind, she mixes people up and misunderstands. To see Corbijn gently and non-judgementally correct her or revise his question, without allowing so much as a flicker of dismay or impatience cross his face is a tiny essay on filial love in its own right. It is, however, as are all the sections on his life, tinged with sadness. It is a quality Corbijn identifies in his work too.
So perhaps the dichotomy we set up earlier between the photographer’s life and his work is a false one, after all. For the rest of us, that separation may exist, with some degree of bleed from one to the other. But it seems like for Corbijn, there is no line between them, however blurred. Work and life overlay and underwrite each other so much as to be indistinguishable. On the evidence here that makes his a beautiful, intelligent but somewhat melancholy existence, one to which “Anton Corbijn Inside Out” does great justice. [B+]