Unblithe Spirit: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

10/24/2012 4:00 AM |

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters
Directed by Ben Shapiro

In 1979, when Park Slope native Gregory Crewdson was just 17, his high school band the Speedies had a minor hit—their only one—with a song he wrote titled “Let Me Take Your Photo“. Crewdson never pursued a career in music, and quickly abandoned his plan to follow in his psychoanalyst father’s footsteps, instead enrolling in Yale’s documentary-inclined photography program where his technicolor, diorama-style surrealism stuck out defiantly. But that adolescent artistic success reads as perfect foreshadowing in Ben Shapiro’s revelatory doc about the celebrated photographer of elaborately staged melancholy scenes in contemporary yet nostalgia-tinged American Anytowns.

Following Crewdson around the depressed former manufacturing hubs of Western Massachusetts, where he photographed his Beneath the Roses series between 2002 and 2008, Brief Encounters chronicles the filmshoot-like process that goes into each of his eerie and exquisite large-format images. The location shooting is especially high-stress, as crews of dozens or more hurry to set up his Edward Hopper-esque scenes by sunset, Crewdson’s preferred time of day because it permits the theatrical lighting that gives his stills their simultaneously cinematic and Renaissance painting-like qualities. “My pictures are moments between moments,” he says, “and I think twilight is a beautiful metaphor for that.” Others offer politicized readings of Crewdson’s chosen aesthetic in the more analytical and biographical sequences that Shapiro splices between soundstage and location shooting. “There’s something spectacular about the settings of those shots,” longtime friend Rick Moody offers, “that has to do with the way capitalism is failing in a very beautiful, ancient landscape.”

Fittingly, one of the documentary’s strongest sequences involves a location where, the day before Crewdson’s shoot, a wrecking crew shows up and begins bulldozing three abandoned houses that were going to be in a photograph. He takes the photo anyway, casting the scene with his typically haunting lighting to capture it mid-demolition, which only boosts the image’s uncanny and impenetrable narrative element. The America that interests Crewdson is slowly being worn or torn down, foreclosed upon and further marginalized, a sentiment this and many of his other works articulate, however obliquely. “The majority of Americans live lives of quiet desperation,” one interviewee comments, “and those are the lives that Gregory is portraying.”

Opens October 31 at Film Forum