Monday, October 29, 2012

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters—Photography at its Most Cinematic

For Gregory Crewdson’s career-defining Under the Roses project, each individual photo had a production budget comparable to most independent films.  The money was not going to big name models.  The dollars are in the details of the photographer’s elaborately constructed photo tableaux.  Ben Shapiro documents the photographer at work in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Inspired by artists like Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Edward Hopper, David Lynch, and Alfred Hitchcock, Crewdson’s photographs capture the surface of hardscrabble western Massachusetts towns, while hinting at dark secrets lurking below.  Each photo suggests an unfolding narrative, but only provides viewers an isolated moment in time.

Frankly, Crewdson truly is best likened to a movie director.  At least for the Roses project, he was not technically the man behind the camera.  That would be his “director of photography” Richard Sands, an expert in all matters related to light, who had held the same title on film shoots.  Instead, Crewdson coaches his models (almost entirely local residents) in much the same manner as a film director and determines every detail of what will be captured in the camera’s field of vision.  Clearly, it is still very much his work, though he is the first to credit Sands’ importance as a collaborator.

Meant to be seen large, Crewdson’s images hold up well on a big screen.  While not as upbeat as Bel Borba, the Brazilian artist recently seen in his own documentary at Film Forum, Crewdson is rather open and engaging when discussing his work.  He never comes across as a dry academic or a self-serious hipster.  He might be slightly neurotic maybe, but by New York standards, it is hard to tell.

Ten years in the making, Brief takes the tried and true approach to art docs, capturing the making-of process for many of the Roses pictures, while periodically cutting away for on-camera interview segments.  Crewdson really is his own best spokesman, whereas his novelist friends Russell Banks and Rick Moody are conspicuously eager to read socio-economic meaning into his shots of Massachusetts’s obviously depressed rustbelt.  Yet, that is the sort of superficial analysis Crewdson is challenging viewers to go beyond.  By setting such mysterious scenes, Crewdson suggests there is more to his modest homes, bars, and motels than meets the initially eye.

Crewdson’s Beneath the Roses project is definitely visually and intellectually stimulating enough to sustain the full seventy-seven minutes of Shapiro’s film, which is always a key question for art documentaries.  Yet, the next major body of work that Crewdson embarks on just as Brief winds down, may be even more intriguing for cineastes.  Recommended for photography and documentary patrons, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters opens this Wednesday (10/31) at Film Forum, assuming it is not flooded or over-run by flesh-eating zombies.