Over a period of three decades Anton Corbijn has repeatedly situated himself amidst the most challenging periods of several artists’ creative existence; not only documenting and immortalising these iconic strands of time via visual medium, but undoubtedly crafting them through his role as creative director to a generation of icons.
Corbijn’s intrinsic ability to cultivate and imprint himself onto the most stimulating and subversive works of bands from Nirvana to Arcade Fire, alongside shaping the visual identity of mega-stars such as U2 – his distinctive brand of chiaroscuro photography gracing the cover of their inescapable 1987 album The Joshua Tree – has cemented his status as one of popular culture’s most important and adventurous choreographers. Corbijn’s dual identity of underground provocateur and mainstream iconographer has gifted the late 20th and early 21st century with some of its most recognisable images; who can forget Cobain’s Cheshire Cat grin in the closing moments of the video for Heart Shaped Box? Or the hooded figures crushed beneath their obelisk burdens in Joy Division’s Atmosphere? His photographic portraits have cast many a subject, from actors to athletes, in an uncompromising and revelatory light – shifting perceptions and unearthing a newfound mystique in the process.
Now, in-between the overpriced coffee table books and Corbijn’s ventures in to the world of feature film comes ‘Inside Out’, a concise character study in documentary form, summarising Corbijn’s remarkable career and the complicated mechanisms of his inner musings. We accompany him upon numerous projects including filming his most recent big-screen offering 2010’s The American, photo-shoots with U2 and Metallica, and overseeing his latest exhibition of work. Director Klaartje Quirijns immediately offers an explanation as to why Corbijn has proved such a suitable comrade to troubled artists such as Cobain, Curtis and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan, revealing that ultimately, he is one himself – a theme relentlessly drawn upon throughout. Inside Out is essentially a study of loneliness, a loneliness which Corbijn has nurtured since youth and the resultant beauty he crafted and retreated into as a means of escaping the ‘ugliness’ of reality. Through impromptu interviews with collaborators such as Bono, it becomes clear that Corbijn does not temporarily enter the world of those with whom he works, but rather they enter his, adopting his character traits and stylistic temperament as he transposes his deepest emotions upon them.
The editing is punchy and economical, interspersing a highlight reel of Corbijn’s work amongst his day to day activities and processes. Interviews are cleverly employed as bookmarks to Corbijn’s personal and professional progression, offering vast and reliable insight in short periods. The inclusion of Corbijn’s younger sister Aff proves highly revealing as the pair reminisce over a childhood in which their father was largely absent due to his role as the local minister; a factor clearly explaining the prominence and destabilization of religious imagery in his work. Due to the calibre of Corbijn’s musical collaborators the soundtrack is equally strong, cuts from Nirvana and Depeche Mode compliment the pictures own ethereal yet uneasy studio compositions, heightening the troubled mood and aura of exploration. Quirijns own shots are often sparse yet picturesque; lovingly paying homage to the desolate nature of Corbijn’s work – yet you can’t help but feel the artist’s creative control painting his own portrait during such aesthetically driven moments. The film only falters during the final third as Quirijns insistence on probing at the Dutch artist’s inner demons – which have either been laid to rest long ago or suppressed beyond recognition – results in completely shutting Corbijn down, creating uncomfortable and unremarkable sequences which detract from the insightful nature of the study as a whole. A deeper emphasis upon Corbijn’s most powerful and familiar work as a music video director would also have been welcome.
His work with individuals such as Cobain and Curtis has been made all the more potent by the despair and tragedy of these individuals’ realities beyond the photographs and music videos, yet rarely are Corbijn’s personal struggles drawn into focus. Inside Out is a nuanced and eloquent study of an extraordinary man, which in-turn reveals how he became such a seminal artist. Witnessing Corbijn’s internal processes is genuinely insightful and in watching his work come to fruition it becomes clear why the church of Corbijn consists of such an iconic congregation.
This piece was originally featured at Down With Film and can also be read here