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11/20/2012 10:29 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

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"When I was working at the gallery, he was breaking up with his second wife." Could this bit of overheard conversation, on the way out of Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro's film which recently played at Manhattan's Film Forum, be a comment on the subject?

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Brief Encounters is mostly about a series of 50 photographs taken over eight years entitled Beneath the Roses. Crewdson uses old mill towns like Lee and Pittsfield, Massachusetts that he's known since childhood as the stage set. They are his Yoknapatawpha County. If a photographer like Rineke Dijkstra seeks to find a moment in the flow of human existence, the involuntary memory that's at the heart of the Proustian madeleine, then Crewdson seeks to create the madeleine itself. He stages a woman sitting outside a Hopperesque bar called The Madison, he gauges out the side of a house that will be gauged. He loves opened car doors at twilight (most of his filming is done at dusk since streets can't be lit during the day and at night the contrast would be too great).

All of this image creation is influenced by such predecessors as Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, and all of these fictions are produced with the attention and expense given to an independent film (though the hyper attention to individual details far exceeds the budget of any independent film). The mixture of beauty and sadness that Crewdson says he likes recall the sense of the sublime that Wordsworth created in Tintern Abbey. However, one can't help wondering if there isn't a slightly studied quality to all of this, as if Crewdson were one of his own set pieces -- the upscale Yale educated New Yorker exploiting his subjects suffering for the sake of his growing international reputation (in the same way that in the course of the film he blames the grotesquery of his earlier work on his failing first marriage).

It's a far cry from Robert Frank's The Americans; there's something self-congratulatory about the emphasis on style and also dismissive about the way he handles his subjects -- he puts make-up on despair. Everything fits a little too neatly together. At the end of the film, Crewdson is off to Cinecitta where he is busily making a home for himself shooting artificial mists onto abandoned sets of imperial Rome."Let Me Take Your Photo,"was a hit song that Crewdson's rock band, The Speedies, created back in l979. Then Crewdson met a girl who turned him on to photography, and he was on his way. "Brief Encounters," the photo after which the film is named, is the final in the Beneath the Roses series. It's a dazzling shot, a stark figure under a movie marquee advertising the 7:30 p.m. show on a snow-covered street. But one wonders what is more effective, the frozen moment or the filming of its creation?

This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture

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