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MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Palm Pictures hit paydirt when it dug into the pasts of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham. The resulting DVDs, released under The Directors Label, featured the brilliant early works of unknown talents who would later become major influences in film. The Directors Label continues to dig for hidden gems with The Work of Director Anton Corbijn.

Corbijn is probably best known for his black-and-white photos of U2, particularly the ones that accompany The Joshua Tree album. As a video director, perhaps his most famous video is also U2-centric: One, which features the members of U2 in drag. At the time of the song’s release as a single, the song had been co-opted as an anthem for AIDS relief, leaving the band stuck in a moment of controversy.

Since some would try to make a nefarious connection between men in drag and the song’s adopted AIDS connotations, the band would go on to make two other videos for the song with two different directors. Nonetheless, from the not-so-objective point of view of a confirmed Bonoholic, One is Corbijn’s best video. Shot in Berlin, it exudes the moody uncertainty of a newly-reunited Germany as well as a newly rededicated U2, a band on the verge of breaking up prior to striking the right chords with One. The presence of Bono’s father in the video brings extra heft to the proceedings.

In addition to One, another piece that captures the essence of Corbijn’s style is Seven Seas with Echo and the Bunnymen. Its theatrical setting and playful use of costuming as a device to change viewers’ impressions of the band are two hallmarks of Corbijn’s oeuvre.

Videos

Anton Corbijn, U2's favorite photographer, works well during electrical storms
Anton Corbijn, U2’s favorite photographer, works well during electrical storms

Aside from U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen, there are plenty of other goodies on Corbijn’s résumé; his consistent level of quality and imagination guarantee this collection’s spot in any videophile’s DVD rotation.

Corbijn is a fan of black-and-white photography and he uses it to great effect in Propaganda’s Dr. Mabuse, his second video in 1984. It features the dark stylings of a silent German thriller. Even his most recent video, this year’s All These Things That I’ve Done with The Killers, is a mini-masterpiece. Shot once again in black-and-white, this time Corbijn pays homage to spaghetti westerns and sexploitation flicks. In short, Corbijn makes classic music videos that stand the test of time.

That’s not to mention his eclectic work on several projects with Depeche Mode and Metallica, a classic video for Quiet Eyes with Golden Earring, and Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box. The latter is a marvel that was shot in color, transferred to black-and-white, then meticulously hand-painted in color to great effect.

All told, there are 29 videos presented in all their black-and-white (or color – or black-and-white-and-color) glory.

Other Stuff

Corbijn is a media man who is, ironically, quite media shy; he’s not the easiest interview to get. That makes this DVD’s 40-minute documentary, entitled NotNa (the title makes more sense when it’s read backwards) all the more special.

It’s an opportunity to get to know the man, born in the Netherlands and the son of a vicar, who has gone on to become a photographer, painter, video director, and on-set comedian. His upbringing no doubt contributed to something of a conflicted conscience and that conflict is displayed in many of his videos, which often feature religious imagery while also being alive and sexy.

While the introductory and running commentaries accompanying many of the videos are mainly snippets culled from NotNa, there are other supplemental features that help flesh out Corbijn’s character and talent even further.

Most notable are:

  • The Making of Electrical Storm, which offers a fun peek at U2 at work, including a hammy Bono taking on an English accent.
  • Corbijn’s first video, Palais Schaumburg’s Hockey, from 1983. That video is low budget and, in keeping with Corbijn’s humor, a title card blames Corbijn for the video’s deteriorated quality.
  • Some YoYo Stuff, a piece about Don van Vliet that takes artsy-fartsy to bizarre new heights. Perhaps the co-star, David Lynch, can be blamed for at least part of the film’s extremely out-of-whack tone.

Booklet

The package includes a 56-page book with most of the text done in Corbijn’s handwriting. It takes a little adjustment to read his scribbles, but the effort is worthwhile. The booklet is a great companion piece for the DVD as it offers insights into the making of several of his videos, including behind-the-scenes photos not available on the DVD itself. One photo, from the set of Joy Division’s Atmosphere, reveals just how clever Corbijn can be. As with Corbijn’s videos, where images often come out of left field, the booklet takes a two-page intermission from Corbijn’s scrawl to present a typed “transcript” of a conversation Corbijn had with Fran Healy, the lead singer of the band Travis, while waiting for their clothes to dry in a laundromat. Essentially, Healy tells Corbijn he thinks it’s time for the video director to throw in the towel and let younger people take over. He offers porn as one possible career alternative. It’s a funny bit that captures the offbeat humor of Corbijn’s world.

Picture and Sound

The DVD spans more than 20 years of music videos. Naturally, the earlier ones lack the dynamic sound and picture of the later videos. But then again, Corbijn is a big fan of Super 8, black-and-white, and grainy film. So, by and large, what you see is what he made.

Naturally, the more recent stuff, particularly Electrical Storm, All These Things That I’ve Done, and Love Will Come Through, boast vibrant, rich 2-channel stereo sound.

Overall

The work of director Anton Corbijn is a treat for both fans and the uninitiated. Explore the work of a Dutch artist and enjoy.