Film Review: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

Reverent if none-too-probing portrait of a master of the micro-managed tableau.

Eerily desolate images permeate the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson, featured in Ben Shapiro’s quietly admiring documentary. His elaborately staged pictures, which can sell for $125,000 a print, can cost as much as an independent movie to make, and take days to produce. Shapiro follows Crewdson as he creates some now well-known images, especially one of a haunted-looking girl staring at an older woman lying on a bed in a strangely lit motel room. We see the intense effort and attention to detail which go into Crewdson’s micromanaging process, and the results are indeed impressive, if oh-so-strenuously achieved.

At the age of ten, Crewdson’s psychologist father took him to a Diane Arbus exhibit, which had a profound effect on him. One can see Arbus’ influence in a strong sense of displacement and the human weirdness in everyday life Crewdson loves to capture in his photographs. Of course, however similar their affect, Arbus’ subjects were often caught on the fly, as it were, while Crewdson’s photos are the results of laborious planning, which can take the form of preliminary sketches akin to motion-picture storyboards, and the deployment of 60-man crews, custom-built sets and blocked-off city streets. The film Blue Velvet was another inspiration to this artist who began as a punk-rock musician, with a group, The Speedies, who had a hit with the prophetically entitled song “Let Me Take Your Picture,” later ironically used for an HP commercial.

As his former teacher, photographer Laurie Simmons, remembers the Yale-educated Crewdson, he was a “cute kid” who took extraordinary pictures, and that combo of white good looks, Ivy League education and precocity does indeed seem a familiar template for success in the New York art world. One could easily assume from the film that his success was a glidingly unrocky path, given these factors. The now no-longer sylph-like Crewdson here comes across as a mild-mannered, surprisingly untemperamental, affable enough sort of guy, impressed by, say, the “fluorescence” of a laundromat he is scouting as a location. But he’s not particularly enlightening about his work verbally, with remarks like “Making art is an act of faith, willing something into existence that will mean something to the outside world.” Crewdson favors shooting in obscure Massachusetts towns like Pittsfield, and it is remarked that these suburban settings stand in marked contrast to his Brooklyn childhood background. He does venture beyond these locales, however, to capture the legendary back lot of Rome’s Cinecittà studios with its abandoned ancient Greco-Roman sets, which, for a master of the tableau like him, provides a perfect marriage of artist and subject.