March 7, 2019
‘Columbus’ and the Art of Telling a Fascinatingly Beautiful Story
There are a lot of indie dramas in which not a whole lot happens. Some of them are fascinating to watch. Many others are not. To be clear, while I consider myself a lover of movies I must admit the merits of genuinely slow cinema are more often than not lost on me. I have forced my way through a Béla Tarr film or two, but I cannot say I ultimately felt enlightened. Some people say they enjoy the experience, and I have no reason to doubt them. I just lack their admirable discipline.
So, with that in mind, how do you make a film in which not much happens that isn’t slow? It’s definitely possible. Sean Baker, for instance, is very good at this. If you gave somebody a play-by-play breakdown of the plot of The Florida Project or Starlet, you would probably bore them to tears. His films are mesmerizing to watch, but it’s not because the plot has you on the edge of your seat.
Another great example of this is Kogonada‘s debut film Columbus, which I finally got around to watching after the recent news that Colin Farrell has signed on to star in the director’s sophomore feature. (I know, I know, I’m two years late to the party but better late than never, right?) Set in the unlikely mecca of modernist architecture that is Columbus, Indiana, the film centers around an unlikely connection between strangers who are both grappling with whether or not to leave the town.
Jin (John Cho) arrives in Columbus after his father, a renowned architecture scholar, collapses the day before he is due to give a lecture and ends up comatose in the local hospital. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young local woman, struggles with the idea of leaving home in order to pursue her interest in architecture. Plot-wise the film boils down to 104 minutes of two people struggling over vaguely similar decisions. As a narrative, the parallelism has a certain elegance to it, but it’s not the sort of story that translates to a riveting logline.
And yet, Columbus is a wholly engrossing film.
So let’s explore how this magic happens. There are a lot of ways to break down the various elements of a film, and one of the most basic is the idea that a film consists of content and form — the story being depicted and the way in which it is being depicted. Since we have already established that it’s not really the content (story) of Columbus that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, that leaves the form.
Prior to his directorial debut, Kogonada was primarily known for his video essays, which are some of the best you can on the web as far as breaking down principles of visual storytelling, and all of that attention to detail in looking at other people’s films has clearly paid off in his own filmmaking. Looking at Columbus reveals three formal principles that are key in putting together a riveting film, independent of story.
The first is to give the viewer a lot to look at. Cinematographically, shallow depth of field (DOF) and tight close-ups are both frequently regarded as highly “cinematic.” However, from a certain standpoint, they are also both very restrictive. They tell the viewer where to look, and don’t really leave room for alternatives.
Think of it this way: in either case, the filmmaker is forcing the viewer to look at one specific thing. If that one thing does not spark interest, the viewer will not be interested. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket, and there are plenty of occasions when that’s neither necessary nor desirable.
Some actors have very interesting faces, and there are plenty of times shallow DOF has been put to excellent use. But since shallow DOF first became accessible to low-budget filmmakers when DSLRs came of age a little over a decade ago, this technique has been way overused. Or, as cinematographer Patrick Moreau wrote in a blog post back in 2016, “you might remember DSLRs coming along in 2008 or so, followed by a lengthy period where most everyone was obsessed with getting their depth of field as shallow as humanly possible.” The fad has calmed down somewhat, but I think the general trend still lingers, and it’s really unfortunate.
Columbus serves as an excellent reminder of how stunning — and simply more interesting — wide shots and deeper focus can be. The film rarely goes closer than a medium close-up (see below) and makes excellent use of wide shots. While architecture runs thematically throughout the whole film, one can easily imagine the basic storyline taking place in a normal, less visually interesting town, and being a whole lot less interesting to actually watch as a consequence. It knows that its visually intriguing setting is one of its strengths, and uses that to full effect.
The second is to reward the viewer for paying attention. The form of a film should tell you something. Of course, nearly all films do this to some degree. High angles and low angles read very differently in terms of the impression they give of the subject. Everything from framing to camera angles to montage adds nuance to the story being told. I realize that none of this is particularly groundbreaking. However, these considerations of form are almost always discussed in terms of communicating a message to the audience.
What receives less discussion but is just as important is how they factor into keeping the audience engaged. Formal nuances that reward the careful audience member can make for a rewarding viewing experience. They’re not entirely unlike addictive little clues sprinkled throughout a murder mystery in that they’re packed with narrative significance and spotting them as a viewer makes you feel smart. One specific example from Columbus would be these two shots from near the beginning and end of the film, in which a son unknowingly echoes his father:
Another is the film’s consistent dedication to details featuring all three primary colors. Just check out the shots below. On the left, there are the pops of color visible through the condensation on the window glass — the red vests of the cleaning staff, the yellow caution signs, the blue caddies of cleaning supplies and garbage bins. On the right, there are the little pocket folders tacked to the hospital walls as well as miscellaneous items at the nurse’s station. And in the shot on the bottom, there are the post-its on the cubicle walls and Casey with a yellow shirt, blue jeans, and red portfolio folder. This one doesn’t necessarily have much narrative significance, it’s just really pleasingly elegant to watch, especially over time.
Last but not least: shake things up. There are certain approaches that are just considered standard. Certain ways of filming a dinner table conversation or angles used to shoot a scene set in a car. Ways of framing X or Y situation that communicate this or that different implication, or what have you.
Generally speaking, these conventions are handy, but to keep things interesting it’s good to shake it up once in a while. One great example from Columbus comes from an early scene in which Jin speaks on the phone, presumably with his employer (the conversation is in Korean). Instead of showing a close-up, or even seeing his face at all, the film only shows his crossed legs as he lounges on the bed, against the slightly out-of-focus backdrop of a pristine hotel room.
It’s an unusual framing choice, but it’s not made just for the novelty factor. Generally, Jin at this point has come across as an emotionally unavailable and distant individual, having already indicated an estranged relationship with his father and ambivalence towards his father’s precarious medical situation. By keeping the camera at a distance and not showing Jin’s face, the framing of this shot further implicates his character.
And these formal innovations don’t just have to be visual — there’s a lot of innovative things that can be done with audio as well. For example, in a key scene in which Casey explains to Jin why she appreciates the architecture of a particular building, the audio cuts out before she starts her impassioned monologue, forcing viewers to zero in on the way her love of the subject plays out across her face, to focus on the enthusiasm in her gestures. It’s an unexpected touch, but once again, it’s a step away from standard practices that ultimately works in service of character development, and one of the hundreds of careful details that makes Columbus such a joy to watch.
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