Ten years in the making, Ben Shapiro’s docu on celebrated photog Gregory Crewdson concentrates on his magnum opus, the collection of huge prints known as “Beneath the Roses.” For those unfamiliar with Crewdson’s oeuvre, the docu serves as a delicious eye-opener, while for fans it furnishes an unprecedented look at his long-secret methods, utilizing crews and budgets suitable for independent features, by which his eerily frozen moments of Americana come into being. Bowing Oct. 31 at Gotham’s Film Forum, the bigscreen providing a perfect canvas for Crewdson’s epic creations, “Brief Encounters” reps a must-see for art lovers.
Producer-director-lenser Shapiro follows Crewdson at each stage of his laborious process. Location photos require endless hours of the shutterbug driving solo through the streets of the same Western Pennsylvanian towns where he shoots all his photographs, endlessly retracing his steps until inspiration strikes and the key aspects of his composition come together in his mind.
At that point, Crewdson, his director of photography Richard Sands and a large crew (many, like Sands, veterans of feature filmmaking) meticulously micromanage every element in the huge frame, a two-day affair that might involve closing off roads, rearranging selected cars, carefully positioning human subjects, laying down fog, washing or dirtying up windows, stapling flowers to a beanstalk and, most importantly, setting up the lighting. (Crewdson’s final photo in the series, fittingly titled “Brief Encounter,” needed 75 lights deployed along a half-mile stretch.) Finally, at twilight on the second day, they take some 40-50 shots that will be further fiddled with and composited in post-production to create a final print.
Non-location images that spring fully formed from Crewdson’s imagination are re-created on soundstages, with a production manager, carpenters and a sizable posse on hand to build, say, a dilapidated house (replete with outmoded, rusty appliances and menacing basement) or a fantastically moonlit room. Throughout the docu, Crewdson supplies revealing commentary on his life, work and influences, many of them cinematic.
This close scrutiny of the artist at work never diminishes the eerie, haunting quality of the photographs themselves, which Shapiro’s camera explores in detail before pulling back to appreciate the whole. The helmer also wisely taps novelists Russell Banks and Rick Moody, rather than fellow photogs, to describe in words the power of Crewdson’s vision. Banks sees the choice of twilight as marking the shift between public and private spaces. Both writers stress the narrative nature of his pictures, and the melancholy beauty of the economically depressed ghost towns where industry has fled, leaving sad, bewildered inhabitants adrift. This socioeconomic layer counterbalances the darker imagery of dreams, often filtered through films. Thus, the bathroom in “Psycho” reappears, virtually unrecognizable, in the corner of a mysterious, very different drama.
A coda in Shapiro’s docu explores Crewdson’s next project, a black-and-white series featuring the decaying, abandoned sets of Cinecitta. As Crewdson himself puts it, every artist has just one story to tell. The challenge is telling it over and over, differently.