What I can tell you from my research is that the Dutch cinematographer Robby MĂŒller didnât give many interviews and he hated moving the camera unless there was a damn good reason. What I can tell you from my experience is that nobody elseâs movies looked like his. The go-to guy for directors as disparate as Wim Wenders, Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier, MĂŒller was a painter of light responsible for an entire art house eraâs most indelible images. After he passed away this July at the age of 78, most movie lovers I know spent the whole holiday weekend sharing their favorite MĂŒller shots on social media.
The Brattle Theatreâs âA Tribute to Robby MĂŒllerâ is a weeklong celebration showcasing 11 of the masterâs finest films, from his early, career-defining work with Wenders to his final full-length feature, 2002âs rollicking Manchester music scene tell-all â24 Hour Party People.â I suppose completists could complain that the program is missing a couple of emblematic favorites like âRepo Manâ and âBreaking the Waves,â but it would probably require a month to cover all of MĂŒllerâs contributions and Iâm taking enough time off from work to go see all these again as it is.
The series begins with âDead Man,â Jim Jarmuschâs absurdist, bracingly violent 1995 anti-Western in which Johnny Deppâs doomed William Blake (no, not the poet) stumbles through surreal encounters in a stark, black-and-white vision of the frontier that MĂŒller renders as barren and forbidding as a lunar landscape. Itâs a bitterly funny movie about destiny manifesting itself as murder, and the apex of an artistic collaboration that began more than a decade before when the two first met at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
According to Jarmusch’s 1999 interview with The Guardian, Wim Wenders told him âgo to the bar and next to the peanut machine, Robby MĂŒller will be sitting there.â Sure enough he was, and that meeting led to 1986âs âDown by Law,â which Iâm not sure is Jarmuschâs best film but Iâm positive itâs my favorite. Tom Waits and John Lurie star as a scowly disc jockey and a surly pimp doing time in a grubby Louisiana prison, along with an effusive Italian cellmate played by the incandescently obnoxious Roberto Benigni. Itâs a jailbreak movie that canât be bothered to show you how they escape, instead focusing on gentle squabbling and melancholy comedy as these three traverse a high-contrast black-and-white bayou MĂŒller fills with shadows and mystery.
We wrote about the marvels of âParis, Texasâ when Wim Wenders was at the HFA back in April. Itâs screening in the Brattleâs retro alongside two of the German filmmakerâs most visually sumptuous collaborations with MĂŒller, their 1976 classic âKings of the Roadâ and the following yearâs deeply unsettling âThe American Friend,â in which Dennis Hopper stars as novelist Patricia Highsmithâs talented sociopath Tom Ripley.
The series offers two visions of Los Angeles that couldnât be more radically opposed. Director Barbet Schroederâs buoyant 1987 âBarflyâ turns a screenplay by gutter poet Charles Bukowski into a blissfully profane farce of almost delirious romanticism. Mickey Rourke gives his funniest, most endearing performance as a raggedly princely drunkard wooing Faye Dunawayâs washed-up, boozy grande dame. MĂŒllerâs cinematography imparts a grungy beauty to a Skid Row lit by sputtering neon and half-burnt-out strings of Christmas lights. I daresay thereâs never been anyone better at photographing peeling paint.
But you wonât find a trace of that warmth in the hazy skies of âTo Live and Die in L.A.,â director William Friedkinâs shockingly brutal 1985 thriller that remains one of the directorâs unsung masterpieces. While most Hollywood pictures revere the cop-on-the-edge who plays by his own rules, this bruising tale of a thrill-seeking Secret Service agent (William Petersen) going rogue to take down a murderous counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) exposes the swaggering archetype as a raging jerk constantly almost getting himself and innocent people killed.
MĂŒllerâs icy coral-and-green color scheme compliments the filmâs pitiless tome, showcasing sides of the city seldom seen in popular entertainments of the time. âHe had this great foreignerâs eye for the States, particularly the West Coast,â Friedkin enthused toÂ The Guardian. âAnd it was so fresh. He wasnât shooting cliches. He captured all those details usually overlooked in American films.â
A gentler side of MĂŒllerâs Americana can be found in 1980âs âHoneysuckle Rose,â a charming shambles of a country music comedy from that regrettably brief era in which Willie Nelson was cast as a romantic leading man. An easygoing love triangle in which the singer finds himself torn between Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving (some guys have it tough) the movie is mostly interested in amusing anecdotes and the textures of life on the road. And in case you were wondering how many times one can hear âWhiskey Riverâ during a single film, the answer is apparently never enough.
The Brattleâs tribute ends quite poignantly with 1989âs âMystery Train,â Jim Jarmuschâs overlapping triptych of stories in which visitors from abroad come to Memphis and marvel at the cityâs ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll history. In its offhanded, unassuming way, this might be MĂŒllerâs most gorgeously photographed film, gazing in wonder along with these characters at the crumbling auditoriums, trash-strewn streets and kitschy cultural artifacts. This is a movie in which even black velvet paintings of Elvis Presley are granted a stately sort of reverence, a marvelous example of how this singular cinematographer could make the most familiar sights feel exotic and new.
âA Tribute to Robby MĂŒllerâ runs from Wednesday, Sept. 4 through Wednesday, Sept. 12th at the Brattle Theatre.