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Neon versus natural daylight: the later works of Robby Müller

Published 6 Jun 2016 at 17:20 by Inez de Coo

Paris, Texas has been one of my favourite films for years. The scene that stuck with me most was with the one-way mirror, best known from police interrogation rooms, but now used for a peep show. She sees her own reflection, while he looks at her, through the window. The platinum blonde hair, the bright pink jumper made of fluffy cashmere, the brilliant mirroring between him and her, man and woman. The play with the mirror is a duet of light. Bright at the one side, dark at the other, visible and invisible. Power play translated into visibility. It is genius.

paristexasphoto: Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)

The cinematographer, also known as the Director of Photography, is resposible for how the image turns out in film, through determining the camera work. The job is best compared to that of a photographer. Depending on the director, it is mainly the cinematographer who determines the look of a film. Robby Müller is known for his use of natural light, often sunlight, but also the light present in a space, just a lamp or TL beams. From the very moment Müller enters a room, he is shifting the lamps, covering some with scarves and turning some off until he captures the perfect image for the film.

The new retrospective in EYE on Müller, whose method is often compared to the Netherland’s world famous tradition in painting, is not entitled Master of Light for nothing. He has optimised the use of light spectacularly, especially in collaboration with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. It would be a shame to disregard his later work, however. Remarkable collaborations, like with 29-year old Alex Cox for the bizarre cult classic Repo Man and with Michael Winterbottom for 24 Hour Party People, about Manchester’s night club ‘The Haçienda’, have produced visually fascinating films.

The Dutch cinematographer, born in Curacao in 1940, wouldn’t arrive in the Netherlands until he was thirteen. Because he felt like a perpetual foreigner, in the Netherlands and in the world, he was considered the perfect outsider by his German and American directors. William Friedkin, director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, saw Müller’s work in Wender’s film Paris, Texas and knew immediately that he wanted to work with him for his next film. Müller looked at America as a stranger, fresh and without prejudice, while capturing the details that normally wouldn’t be included in American films. That’s how Müller became the cinematographer for Friedkin’s 1985 police movie, To Live and Die in LA.

livdiela-hd_01photo: To Live and Die in LA (Friedkin, 1985)

To Live and Die in LA, together with Repo Man and Barfly, are seen has Müller’s informal trilogy about Los Angeles. In this films he captured his love for the night and neon light, that would freshen our worn perspective of the most filmed and misunderstood city on earth. Although he didn’t work on the entire film, his natural lighting was what characterised the film’s realistic style. Friedkin crowned him the master of the single setup scene, Müller’s method of finding the perfect light, filming quickly and continuing immediately. This way, the film could be filmed incredibly quickly.

The low-tech, natural way of working also caught Lars von Trier’s attention, when he was looking for a cinematographer for his first musical, Dancer in the Dark. Von Trier, who became famous with the Danish film-making movement Dogma 95 and his extremely strict rules for making realistic films, was devoted to the advantages of using natural light. Colour also plays a big role in how you experience his sometimes outrageous movies. Or actually, lack of colour. Müller enjoy describing how the lack of colour in Dancer in the Dark was of vital importance to the feel of the movie.

From realistic shootings in the shady parts of Los Angeles all the way to an acid house rave scene, Müller could capture all sorts of scenes on film, authentically. For a cinematographer who became famous with Wender’s typically European black-and-white Neuer Deutscher Film, capturing these places was a huge turnaround. His view on the world, from Los Angeles, Manchester and Washington, still strikes a chord. All in all it depicts a cinematographer that understands the art of his craft incredibly well and uses this to create striking images of the world within which he lives.

We Are Public members can visit the exhibition Robby Müller: Master of Light in Eye from Monday 13 June to Sunday 19 June. Members can also attend a number of Müller film screenings: Down by Law on 15 June, Barfly on 17 June, Im Lauf der Zeit on 19 June and Saint Jack on 23 June.

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