Monday, December 7, 2015

The Trouble with LIFE: My Review of the Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson Film on the Relationship Between Actor James Dean and Photographer Dennis Stock

I just finished watching LIFE (2015), starring Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson. The film focuses on the relationship between photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson) and actor James Dean (DeHaan) during their collaboration on photographs for LIFE magazine in 1955, including the iconic photo of Jimmy walking in Times Square, wearing his famous black coat, with a cigarette dangling from his downcast lips.

James Dean by Dennis Stock, Times Square, NYC, February 1955

As a big James Dean fan, and a Toronto resident who actually saw some of the scenes filmed downtown, I have been looking forward to this movie since I first found out about it. Biopics in general are difficult to rate. No matter how talented the actor, it is hard to bring to life - in this case - a cultural icon successfully.  

First of all, it is impossible to look exactly like the real person, so most actors try to simply emulate the person's style and mannerisms and hope the audience finds his/her performance convincing enough. Secondly, with someone like James Dean, who died before the Internet/mass media age, there are no talk shows or paparazzi videos to really show what he was like when he wasn't acting, so filmmakers tend to tackle the rebellious/temperamental side of Jimmy and encourage their lead actor to play up this image only, usually to a fault. 

Actors Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson in LIFE (2015)

This brings me to the first issue I had with LIFE. Actor Dane DeHaan, who plays James Dean, sticks to a monotonous mumble throughout the film - one of the most hyped up Jimmy traits - whereas from audio recordings such as the interview Jimmy did on the set of Rebel Without A Cause, we know that in real life, he had an intellectual, clear-spoken, and articulate side to him, especially when he was discussing something he was passionate about. Unfortunately, in LIFE, even when Dean is speaking intelligently, he sounds monotone and incoherent, which makes it hard to take him seriously.

Jimmy enjoyed reading and exploring various hobbies like drawing, bullfighting, and even ballet. He wasn't just a conga-playing, motorcycle-riding rebel. I felt that DeHaan tried so hard to be brooding and rebellious that he failed to grasp Jimmy's complexity and the inner workings of how he approached his craft. 

James Dean, Fairmount, Indiana, February 1955.  Photo by Dennis Stock

Granted, there is a scene where Dean is reading poetry in Fairmount. However, it is so out of place from the type of Dean we had seen in the film up until that point that it comes across as comical. It's the same thing when Dean is reciting the poem at the very end of the film on the airplane. The film was trying to be artsy, but that scene in particular was just plain cheesy. What it lacked was context . . . details on why Dean was so attached to Indiana. Why he was afraid to leave his roots, his home, and become "Hollywood".  Dean fans will understand the deeper meaning in that scene, but the casual viewer will have a hard time comprehending the significance of his drifter tendencies and uncomfortableness with commitment (not attending the East of Eden premiere, heading to Fairmount out of the blue, leaving Los Angeles for New York and back again), as well as the complexities in which these tendencies are rooted and why acting is so important to him.

A minor issue I had with the film was the makeup. We get it - Jimmy was an insomniac. He had dark circles/bags under his eyes - this is well documented - yet he also had a vital mischievous spark he surprised people with often. In LIFE, Dean almost always looked dull, even when he was having "fun". There were even many times where he looked like he had the flu, never mind suffering from a number of sleepless nights, and it distracted from the authenticity of many of the scenes.

James Dean by Dennis Stock, NYC, February 1955

Actor Dane DeHaan as James Dean in LIFE (2015)

Back to the characters. The movie broaches Dennis Stock's poor relationship with his son and ex-wife, and his desire to be a respected photographer while only getting offered Hollywood red carpet and behind-the-scenes assignments, but it never fully explores any of this. Therefore, it was difficult to understand, behind Stock's eagerness to publish a photo essay in a respectable publication, what really drove Stock personally and professionally. What troubled him. What he loved. By the end of the film, I had no idea who the man really was.

Actor Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock in LIFE (2015)

Dean's storyline is also weak. In the movie, Jimmy is brooding. Jimmy is spaced out. Jimmy is scowling. Jimmy is brooding . . . and brooding . . . and brooding. A true Dean fan will understand where this uncertainty, detachment, and perpetual sadness comes from; the little boy lost, struggling with fame and the early loss of his mother and his conflict with his father . . . his fear of abandonment, his difficulty trusting people . . . his tendency to suddenly be rude to someone or ignore them to test them . . . to see if they will abandon him, too, or stick around. However, none of these traits are ever fleshed out in the film . . . never shared or explained. 

Dane DeHaan as James Dean in LIFE (2015)

There is one scene were Dean briefly discusses the loss of his mother with Stock, and during their visit to Fairmount, we see that Dean misses his family, he's wary of his impending fame, and yet also feels conflicted because he enjoys acting and living in New York, where he can work on his craft. But that's it. I'm not saying the audience needs a detailed psychological rundown of why Jimmy was the way he was, but some deeper understanding is necessary for people who don't know Jimmy's story well to truly grasp his character and his relationship with Dennis Stock in the film and be able to enjoy the story.

James Dean and Dennis Stock, Fairmount, Indiana, February 1955

The relationship between Dean and Stock was a symbiotic one. Jimmy, even with all of his reluctance toward fame, wanted a spread in LIFE magazine and to be taken seriously as an actor, while Stock wanted to upgrade from the guy who attends film premieres and shoots random celebrities to a respected photographer whose portraits convey a sense of intimacy and introduces his audience to his subjects on a deeper level. Again, this was not explored in LIFE. The film needed more of a backstory on Stock and Dean in order to truly appreciate their relationship with each other as well as their individual faults and behaviors. LIFE touched on each man's ambitions, but how they related to each other . . . how they felt about each other during and after their time together . . . was never explored. 

There were many timeline and historical inaccuracies in this film, which I won't get into, because only fans of James Dean will know or probably care about this. But they were there and there were plenty of them. Overall, the biggest downfall of the film is that it lacked substance. It never really delved beneath the more superficial legacies left behind by these men. Who was the real James Dean? Who was the real Dennis Stock? If you're looking for answers, you will not get them from LIFE. 

James Dean, Fairmount, Indiana, February 1955. Photo by Dennis Stock

In many ways, Jimmy is an enigma. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly who he was. He was only in the public eye for a short time; there are far too few one-on-one print interviews with him, no television interviews (even his Drive Safe television spot was a "performance"), and fan magazines always made up stories back then, so all of the articles printed about him in those publications are mostly fiction. There are many written and spoken accounts about Jimmy from people who worked with him and hung out with him socially, but how many of those have been sensationalized over the years? 

James Dean in his Manhattan apartment, January 1955. Photo by Dennis Stock

Luckily, there are many accounts from Marcus Winslow Jr. (his cousin) and other family members, which give us a good indication of the man Jimmy truly was when he wasn't onstage or in front of the camera. However, LIFE didn't seem to use his family as reference, considering all of the historical inaccuracies. 

James Dean and his cousin Marcus Winslow Jr., Fairmount, Indiana, February 1955. Photo by Dennis Stock

Elia Kazan (who directed Jimmy in East of Eden (1954)) shared fascinating information on Jimmy, too, which I trust, since one of Kazan's many gifts was being able to identify and explore his actors' deepest, most sacred, happiest, saddest, depressed, tormented, etc, parts of themselves in order to extract the best possible performances from them. Sadly, LIFE didn't do the same with its characters. 

Director Elia Kazan and James Dean on the set of East of Eden, 1954

LIFE is disjointed, hollow, and at times the production seems like a bad TV movie. I was truly rooting for this film but ended up disappointed. In my opinion, the film should have focused on Dennis Stock. His storyline is the only one that showed potential, and Robert Pattinson, I believe, could've done his character justice with a proper script. Unfortunately, his talent was wasted here. The James Dean storyline - which I know they focused more on because he is the bigger celebrity and the bigger box office draw - is actually what sunk the film. Dean should've been the supporting character. The film hints that this was supposed to be the case when Dean comforts Stock in Fairmount and says (I'm paraphrasing) that their photography partnership was never truly about Jimmy, but Stock instead. However, there are no indications in this film that that is true. Too bad. The film would've been much better if that were the case.

James Dean and Dennis Stock, 1955. Photo by Phil Stern