FILM NOVEMBER 15, 2012
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters
A NEW FRENCH FILM called All Together is precisely the sort of picture that many have been missing from Hollywood. It was made in studios or outdoors, not in a laboratory. Its chief concern is people, not technical novelty like swollen versions of comic-book clichés. It is not therefore a masterpiece necessarily: it joins a line of main American and other countries’ films (possibly because other countries could not quite afford the monsters).
All Together was written and directed by Stéphane Robelin with a healthy sense of how entertainments are made and with a good share of the French regard for aging actors, female especially. They seem to delight in the fact that the players have been precious to them for so long. In this case the two principal women, Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin, are American, but they are both veterans of French film. The three principal men, Guy Bedos, Claude Rich, and Pierre Richard, have long been treasured, and all five of them, together with Robelin, enjoy the picture.
At the start, these people are living apart—two couples and one single man—in the sun-drenched countryside, apparently well off, but they are so often all together that they decide to live together in one of their large houses. What follows is not only the result of that move, it is a way of seeing them more clearly—one man’s feeling for good wine and near-dependence on his dog, one woman’s reluctance to leave sexuality—stimulated by the arrival in their house of a good-looking young student to observe them for sociological purposes. The past involvements of three of them also bubble to light. All along, the picture is behaving as such films tend to behave. We are aware that it is in the basic sense a traditional entertainment. It tries for nothing deep, it strains for nothing cinematically new; seeing it is like welcoming a new old friend.
THERE IS STILL a third way to frame or conceive a film, midway between the traditional and the avant-garde, a way that recurs occasionally in several countries. This method is conventional in technique, nothing startlingly novel or inventive; and for content, it simply adds scene after scene without overall cogency or distinct narrative. Unlike the laboratory creations of recent days, it relies on its general humanity to be its point.
The latest such is Holy Motors by the French director-writer Leos Carax, who has also been an actor. This is Carax’s first feature since 1999, when he had earned a reputation as a bad boy of the New Wave. It is never dull. The leading role—or roles, really—are played by Denis Levant. The scenes, disconnected though they are, all solos of a sort, are well-enough done; it is simply inexplicable, even though it is credible.
At the beginning, or near it, a white stretch limo pulls away from a Paris mansion as two children call out behind, “See you tonight, Dad! Work hard!” Daddy is Monsieur Oscar, who is Levant. He is a major tycoon of some kind. A guardian car follows his limo for a time. The first thing he does in his limo is to phone a colleague with some investment commands; then he phones another saying that they must have guns, a special pistol. Why? We take it seriously, though we never learn why he needs them. Then, in his moving car, he proceeds to put on makeup and a costume. He gets out at a prearranged stop as an old beggar woman and proceeds to beg. Never explained. Back in his car he changes into a youthful tunic covered with tiny bulbs—his face, too, stuck in a mask—gets out at a huge empty plant, whirls around on several floors with lights twinkling, then walks along with a submachine gun flashing.
We discover that he has a passenger, his secretary, a woman who leaves to prepare further matters for him, which confirms our suspicion that we are watching a designed allegory. But this is never confirmed because these episodes, now and later, cannot be realized as a poem of characteristics or as a journey of man. For instance, later on he plays a dying man, movingly, in an (unexplained) death scene, after which he simply rises and goes on.
More scenes, including a violent knife fight, come along until the last very murky sequence that finishes the journey with several lines of unidentified verse. So, one may say, is the film. Other pictures of this general third type have been much less symbolic, just slabs of ordinary life placed before us realistically, one by one. Again the very placement itself is to serve, one assumes, the sufficiently sophisticated as raison d’être, avoiding such a vulgarity as purposeful story. These films remind me of some modern poetry that simply places one gleaming phrase after another, leaving us with a collection of gleaming phrases.
WHEN THE CAMERA was invented in early nineteenth-century France, some people were aghast. The painter Paul Delaroche supposedly said, “From today, painting is dead!” Later in the century, after this statement proved somewhat untrue, the motion picture camera arrived, and for the second time photography stunned the world. But few were then aghast. This time the fixing of moving figures with light became familiar in lightning-swift time. By today cinematography generally is so enveloping that, although still photography has hardly been forgotten, warm regard for it is welcome. A timely greeting then to Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a vigorous and knowledgeable documentary about a still photographer.
Crewdson’s work hangs in numerous museums, and books have appeared with some of the work in this film. The film’s director Ben Shapiro has spent eight years on the project, much of it in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Crewdson lives, a pleasant time for both, obviously. The film flows nicely because besides his talent, Crewdson himself is a prime subject for a documentary—articulate and compliant without being pushy. He talks about his work as a kind of lifelong testament.
We see that there are many kinds of his work—some like that of a Henri Cartier-Bresson, spontaneous, recording a moment that might otherwise be lost and that ought to be part of history. Later it is more like that of Ansel Adams, making artwork out of a world of the otherwise unperceived. For such moments Crewdson works with a crew, arranging contents like the place of a car or a chair, adjusting additional light. Like a film director, he wants the picture to be shaped as he likes and to contain the values he wants there, but he doesn’t often touch the camera himself.
His subjects here are unsensational, mothers and babies, commonplace streets. The visual qualities in our daily lives. The writers Russell Banks and Rick Moody appear to affirm his benefits.
They make one wonder how an individual knows that he has the photographer’s gifts. About this matter I once asked (through an interpreter) Kazuo Miyagawa, a longtime Kurosawa cameraman, as we drove through the streets of Kyoto. He laughed, asked the driver to stop, and said, “Good. There is the first place I ever shot a scene for a film.” I asked how he got that job. He said, “Because I was a good second baseman.” The camera company needed one for its team. He succeeded, and progressed from the baseball field to the camera. During Crewdson’s picture, I wondered what position he had needed to play in order to reach the camera place where a film was made about him.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Other Ways” .