It is a rare thing to witness the creative process. But in the excellent new documentary "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters," filmmaker Ben Shapiro gives us fly-on-the-wall access over a 10-year period to an acclaimed artist as he envisions, designs and executes his surreal commentary on small-town American life in the form of an epic photo installation, "Beneath the Roses."
Bit by bit Shapiro uses Crewdson's musings to piece together the way he moves from a jumble of thoughts to the moment he shoots. It's a testament to Crewdson's storytelling power that his still photographs resonate so deeply on-screen.
The filmmaker first met Crewdson in 2000 while doing a piece on him for PBS. He would spend large portions of the next 10 years following the artist as "Beneath the Roses," which Shapiro uses to frame the film, took shape.
Intercut with the behind-the-scenes segments and one-on-ones with Crewdson are interviews that put the contemporary artist's significance in perspective. His work is collected at top museums around the country including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Met and the Whitney. Crewdson is also a professor of photography at Yale University, his alma mater.
But the acclaim and the specifics are far less interesting than the man, and the filmmaker understands this, smartly never leaving his subject for long. Crewdson is an engaging tour guide to his life. There are photos and memories of his childhood in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, with the mystery of his father's psychiatric practice in their home basement — nothing nefarious — just beyond the boy's reach. But the journey gets far more fascinating as Crewdson heads down the circuitous road his mind travels around conceptual ideas.
Though his work is dark, on camera at least, Crewdson is a delight. He's at ease as he explains why the girl in one photo is on the living room floor, eyes glazed, water pooling eerily around her, looking like a crime scene awaiting discovery. It all makes sense when he talks about a scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" as artistic inspiration or credits David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" with changing his notion of imagery as character. He even functions more like a director than a photographer — looking through the camera's lens, but leaving the actual shooting to his longtime director of photography, Richard Sands.
The production of each photographed scene echoes moviemaking as well. They are expensive, elaborate affairs, meticulously staged by Crewdson. The crew it takes to build, dress and light the giant sets or small town streets expands at times to 60 and more. In contrast, the director shot most of the documentary's footage himself.
For all the precision of the artist's planning, a photo's genesis can feel remarkably random.
In one case, a casual acquaintance Crewdson spots on a sidewalk pushing an elaborate contraption stacked with some indefinable material ends up anchoring a photo that seems to speak of homelessness and aimlessness — that same man now in the middle of the street, a rusted shopping cart overflowing with household items. In turn, Shapiro creates a similar arc in "Brief Encounters" — the filmmaker's footage of Crewdson taking his shots flow seamlessly into the final photo. Then the photo itself is allowed to linger on-screen.
Early on, Shapiro sets the stage for what is to come with a glimpse at Crewdson's approach. We watch as the artist positions a car in a street, then a woman in front of it, then her dress, her eyes, her body — the tone changing with each adjustment. The process repeats for the weary man behind the wheel. In the artist's hands that singular moment becomes the tableau of an entire relationship. In the filmmaker's hands it becomes a tableau for the relationship between a man and his art.
'Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters'
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Playing: At Music Hall, Beverly Hills
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