Friday, 6 July 2018

Robby Müller

In Memoriam

In general, I tend not to make too many "R.I.P." posts. Other blogs that are more active than mine make such tributes a regular feature of their postings, but given that I'm not a very prolific writer here at Lights in the Dusk, I could imagine such posts becoming overwhelming given the general lack of other content. The sad fact is that too many great artists come and go and if I were to acknowledge each of them this blog would turn into an obituary.

However, Robby Müller, the great Dutch cinematographer famed for his collaborations with Wim Wenders, among other filmmakers, passed away this week, and it seems necessary to break from this tradition and share a few words (and images) about his extraordinary career.

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]:

Müller was one of my absolute favourite cinematographers and was someone who seemed to gravitate towards projects and filmmakers that speak to me on a profoundly personal level.

It's difficult to choose a favourite film photographed by Müller. Throughout his career he brought a style, atmosphere and inventiveness that always seemed right for the specific project. In other words, he served the material. Whether he was working in 16mm black and white, as in Alice in the Cities (1974), 35mm colour, as in Barfly (1987), or pioneering the use of digital video, as in Dancer in the Dark (2000), My Brother Tom (2001) and 24 Hour Party People (2002), respectively, Müller was able to create lasting images that were bold, iconographic and always attuned to matters of light, space, character and location.

Whether collaborating with mainstream Hollywood directors, such as William Friedkin, John Schlesinger and Peter Bogdanovich, or more idiosyncratic, independent talents, such as Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch and Raúl Ruiz, Müller always seemed to bring a level of craftsmanship that was even more remarkable given the limitations that he chose to embrace.

It's not an overstatement to suggest that Müller could have had the same career as Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, or more recently Hoyte Van Hoytema; working exclusively on big budget Hollywood pictures for so-called "prestige" filmmakers. Instead, Müller chose to work with filmmakers that were unconventional, controversial and often at the start of their careers. In doing so, he nonetheless succeeded in creating a lifetime's worth of astounding images on small budgets, short schedules and against incredibly difficult filming conditions.

Robby Müller filming Kings of the Road [photo attributed to Wim Wenders]:

Just focusing on his early collaborations with Wenders already illustrates Müller's amazing versatility. Moving from the stylised and Hitchcokian The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) to the almost documentary like travelogue of Alice in the Cities, we can appreciate both his mastery of different mediums and his ability to switch between works of unforced naturalism and painterly stylisation.

The subsequent films that Wenders and Müller made together would only broaden their creative pallet, as the emphasis on landscape, or 'place', became a central concern in a film like Kings of the Road (1976) or the early scenes of Paris, Texas (1984), while the use of colour would become increasingly more daring and expressive, as in the Edward Hopper influenced Patricia Highsmith adaptation The American Friend (1977).

The lasting legacy of Müller is perhaps best surmised by Wenders himself, who in a tribute to his former collaborator, states: "Like no other, you were able to seize moods and to describe situations in your imagery that revealed more about the characters than long dialogues or dramaturgical structures ever could. You knew how to create a distinctive atmosphere for each and every film, in which the respective actors were, in the truest sense of the phrase, "in good hands." For a handful of filmmakers, among whom I was one, you were their most important companion, like Hans W., Jim, Lars, Steve. And you were a role model for a whole generation of young directors of photography."

Below are some images taken from my absolute favourite films photographed by Robby Müller, which I hope illustrate many of the qualities discussed here, as well as providing a chronological record of his stylistic progression, trademarks, characteristics and key works.

Alice in the Cities [Wim Wenders, 1974]:

Kings of the Road [Wim Wenders, 1976]:

The Left-Handed Woman [Peter Handke, 1978]:

The American Friend [Wim Wenders, 1977]:

They All Laughed [Peter Bogdanovich, 1981]:

Repo Man [Alex Cox, 1984]:

Paris, Texas [Wim Wenders, 1984]:

To Live and Die in L.A. [William Friedkin, 1985]:

Down by Law [Jim Jarmusch, 1986]:

Mystery Train [Jim Jarmusch, 1989]:

Korczak [Andrzej Wajda, 1990]:

Until the End of the World [Wim Wenders, 1991]:

Dead Man [Jim Jarmusch, 1995]:

Breaking the Waves [Lars von Trier, 1996]:

The Tango Lesson [Sally Potter, 1997]:

Dancer in the Dark [Lars von Trier, 2000]:

Ashes [Steve McQueen, 2014]: