Monday, February 18, 2008

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ: LIFE THROUGH A LENS - weak doc; great career

Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, I don't believe in The Beatles, I just believe in me. Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off people.ANNIE LEIBOWITZ: LIFE THROUGH A LENS is not a particularly well-made documentary. Film-maker and sister of the subject, Barbara Leibovitz, doesn't have much visual flair, imposes no daring structure onto the material and her editing doesn't draw out incisive comments. Nonetheless, LIFE THROUGH A LENS remains an interesting movie because it's about a fascinating and iconic photographer and features interviews with film-stars, rock musicians and famous politicians.

The documentary is basically a chronological and methodological look at Annie Leibovitz' career. By chance, Annie finds herself a student photographer in San Francisco in the 1960s - just as the cultural revolution is kicking off. She establishes her reputation with gritty photo-reportage for Rolling Stone - sitting aside the great chroniclers of that age - Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Along with the politics, Annie also gets fantastic photos of all the great rock acts of the day by taking the time to hang out with them, put them at ease, and capture them off-guard. The downside of the frenetic lifestyle was drug addiction.

Some time around the end of the seventies, Rolling Stone "sold out" of San Francisco and moved to New York. It had grown up and gone mainstream. Annie also went mainstream. She cleaned up in rehab and went to work for Tina Brown at Vanity Fair. Her style of photography underwent two changes. First, Annie was photographing celebrities and film stars, pandering to the egos of the Trumps. Instead of capturing intimate pictures of grungy rockers, it was all about surface gloss and the "best side". Second, instead of capturing moments in reality, Annie was increasingly creating complicated story-board tableaux. These got more elaborate (and expensive) over time, and culminated in an over-dressed style that I personally find rather claustrophobic and alienating. Still, you can't deny that amid all the hoop-la there have been some iconic images - the naked pregnant Demi Moore, for example.

The documentary was a great way to devote 90 minutes to really thinking about Annie's work and to see the evolution of her style. I saw a bunch of photographs I'd never seen before as well as learning about the context of some that I was aware of. Seeing everything chronologically made me realise just how far I had become alienated from her recent work, but also made me appreciate just how much I loved those early Rolling Stone pictures.

What this movie isn't is a film about Annie Leibovitz' personal life. The drug addiction is dealt with very quickly. We do see Annie discuss her relationship with, and photographs of, Susan Sontag - but this is obviously deeply distressing and passes quickly. Some reviewers have criticised this discretion. I disagree. Leibovitz herself argues that her most important relationship has been with her work. As such, the focus of this documentary is spot on.

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ was released in the US and Spain in 2007 and opened in Japan earlier in the year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in France in June.

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