Written and directed by Kogonada; released 2017.
What are we to make of this little movie, with its themes of family and work, set incongruously amidst splendid modernist architecture in the middle of America? Is there anything new here, anything to think about and remember, or is Columbus just another art-house film, lovingly crafted to be sure, but fated to drop into the cultural bitbucket, occasionally referenced but seldom viewed?
Jin (John Cho) has come to Columbus, Indiana, where his father has been stricken during a tour of the city’s architecture. Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local girl who lives with her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes). Only two other characters are significant: Casey’s co-worker, Gabriel (Rory Culkin), and a friend of Jin’s father, Eleanor (Parker Posey). Each main character gets plenty of dialog and screen time, letting director Kogonada avoid the necessity of creating mere types.
Something is troubling these characters. You can see it on their faces in the frequent portrait shots the movie gives us. But what is it?
Freud said that work is critical to binding us to reality. Films often have difficulty showing ordinary day-to-day work and its role in people’s lives. In Columbus, all of the characters work and we see and hear quite a bit about their jobs. Jin is a translator of books; Casey and Gabriel work in a library; Maria works in a box factory; Eleanor appears to be some sort of agent. Casey also seems to function as a kind of caregiver for her mother, who looks chronically exhausted, perhaps from the life she has led, full of bad boyfriends and periodic drug abuse.
Maybe not uplifting or even satisfying work, but they all have pretty decent work compared to people in other times and places: no grubbing in the dirt, no foraging for food, no fight for survival; their lives have plenty of time for reflection and relaxation. And yet the malaise has not lifted.
Is this just a portrait of our times, the qualified unhappiness of so many in the modern era, the vague ache that cannot be located?
Much of the pleasure of Columbus is visual. Just as the camera gives us lovely portraits of the various characters, it also gives us beautifully framed shots of Columbus architecture. Shouldn’t this setting be a source of joy and wonder for its inhabitants? Undoubtedly it is for Casey, even therapeutic, but she tells Jin that most people in Columbus are unaware of their surroundings, residents of an architectural Eden who rarely lift their eyes to the heavens, as it were.
Columbus is also a very quiet movie; there are no car chases. Quite a few scenes are of Casey and Jin walking about the city, viewing architecture and talking. If a part of your brain has gone numb from years of on-screen explosions, crashes and screaming in the night, this movie could be the tonic you need.
I did find something odd about the sound in Columbus, though. Perhaps it was just the sound quality of a typical cineplex, but there were times when the dialog grew so soft I found it impossible to follow. Was this deliberate? Perhaps a hint at this possibility is given in a key scene, where Jin demands that Casey tell him in her own words what “moved” her about a building and, after a couple of false starts, she finally does. But we’re given her speech only as a shot behind glass, without sound, only her lips moving, as though the words themselves were beside the point.
We also get what look like identical shots of Jin’s father and, later, Jin, standing alone, back to the camera, contemplating the lush greenery behind one of the famous Columbus buildings. There’s also some discussion of the possibility that architecture can heal. Is this a prescription for the dark cloud that hangs over us, the heavy atmosphere that never completely lifts? That is, put down the smartphone and just gaze in complete silence at the beauty around us.
Much will undoubtedly be made of Richardson’s performance: her quiet, dead-on portrait of a Midwest girl trying to find her way into the future without parental guidance. In fact, Casey and Maria’s roles are reversed in many ways, with Casey playing the part of the concerned parent constantly checking up on a daughter’s whereabouts.
One scene that stands out in my mind is when Casey shows Jin the school she attended. It’s a building almost without architecture and could very well be the backside of a mall, but this place has meaning for her. After Jin falls asleep in the car, Casey suddenly cranks up the radio and begins to dance in the car’s headlights. Apparently this is how she deals with the frustration that has been building up inside her. Others might turn sullen and depressed, or violent and full of rage; Casey just dances wildly by herself in front of her old school.
Columbus certainly passed one of my tests in that I was still reliving it in my mind two days later. But what exactly is the takeaway of a movie like this? It doesn’t have a very satisfactory story arc since it doesn’t have much of a story. There’s some tension, but very little drama and nothing much really happens. Perhaps it should be viewed more like a beautiful painting or building rather than as a narrative work. What you retain is as much how the piece made you feel as what you learned from it.
© 10 Franks 2017