Deciding how to balance architecture and the art that accompanies it (or vice versa) is a delicate task. In museums with particularly iconic and idiosyncratic buildings, the task becomes even harder. After all, few people go to the Sistine Chapel to admire the building itself — they’re there for the ceiling, the Last Judgement, or the 15th-century wall frescoes by Italian masters. On the other end of the spectrum, architecture eclipses all else at New York’s Guggenheim Museum; it’s hard to fully appreciate the paintings and sculpture on display because of the overwhelming and seemingly complete nature of the building itself.
I bring up these museum examples because I’d never thought about mise-en-scène in a movie along these lines before — about the need to balance the action of the shot with the overall surroundings; or, even, if that need exists. In many cases, we go to the movie theater for the characters and the actors that portray them, not because the setting is particularly notable or exciting. Despite how many romantic comedies treat New York City like its own character (as the cliché goes), settings usually play a supporting role, functioning as backdrops to what’s going on. Yet Columbus, the remarkable debut film (debut film!) by Kogonada, a film critic known for his video essays, is the first film I’ve seen that really treats its characters and the world around them in a perfectly balanced manner, highlighting their equal (and complementary) impact and significance. Columbus presents the Modernist architecture of the town of Columbus, Indiana, not as scenery where the main characters make their connection and have their revelations, as a co-protagonist in its own right: the surfaces, textures, and layouts of each building (indeed, each individual shot) are given as much focus and loving attention as stars John Cho (Star Trek) and Haley Lu Richardson (Edge of Seventeen).
Aside from Wes Anderson movies (most notably The Grand Budapest Hotel), I’d never seen a movie that took such care in composing each and every shot — emphasizing orthogonal lines and perfectly-aligned one-point perspective, or creating crystalline moments of symmetry and harmony where a character is shot standing in the precise center of a row of windows. Indeed, the approach to mise-en-scène in Columbus is set up by actual dialogue spoken early in the movie: Richardson’s character Casey is introduced to us while murmuring a sort of tour-guide spiel about the Eliel Saarinen First Christian Church — how even though the door and cross on the building’s façade (and the clock on the tower) are purposefully off-center, they still manage to be balanced and beautiful. Columbus dedicates itself to making sure we, the audience, notice and study the architecture and the characters standing in front of (or beside, or within) the buildings by setting up long, long takes that give us time to appreciate the concrete ceiling and array of bookshelves in the I.M. Pei-designed Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, or even the simple way that the inside of Casey’s house is lit, how the furniture and jutting corners play off of one another, or how a car moving across the screen disrupts the serenity of a freshly-mowed field of grass with its straight lines converging towards a distant horizon. We see characters have conversations while reflected in mirrors, or from behind, the camera looking up at them as if hoping to peer over their shoulders, which adds to the dynamism and intrigue of every single shot.
However, what separates how Columbus is shot from a Wes Anderson film is the overall extra-diegetic context of each shot. Specifically, with a movie like The Grand Budapest Hotel, the surroundings are lavish and eye-catching, to be sure, but are largely artificial and created solely for the purpose of making the movie. In Columbus, however, the buildings that we see through Richardson’s and Cho’s eyes are real buildings, and are a real part of history, and have meaning in people’s lives — meaning outside of the world of the movie. When the lights of the theater come back on, Columbus, Indiana, is a real place that you can find on a map — a place that you can visit and appreciate for yourself. And if you’re a fan of Modernist architecture, Columbus is basically Modernism Porn: The Movie. (I’m being facetious, but also pretty serious. It’s a real smorgasbord of straight lines and large glass windows.)
As far as the plot of Columbus goes, it’s a simple one that allows the characters to breathe and feel inhabited and fully real. Jin (Cho), a book translator based in Seoul, comes to Columbus, Indiana when his estranged father, an architecture professor, is taken to the hospital while visiting the town to give a lecture. Meanwhile Casey, a year out from high school, struggles to reconcile her love of learning and her love of architecture — especially the architecture in Columbus, Indiana — with her sense of familial responsibility. Jin and Casey meet across a wrought-iron gate from the garden of the bed-and-breakfast where Jin is finishing a tense phone call. Casey, having finished her work at the library, smokes a cigarette while looking at the Saarinen Church, as she did when we first meet her. She offers him a cigarette, he refuses at first, but soon acquiesces, and a friendship blossoms. The vast majority of the movie, then, consists of Jin and Casey walking around Columbus’ Modernist landmarks, with Casey discussing what each building means to her specifically — even though Jin, who dubs Casey an “architecture nerd,” claims to dislike architecture (owing to his fraught history with his father).
Cho and Richardson are, frankly, sublime in their respective roles, and play off one another naturally and wonderfully. Richardson is luminous and heartbreaking, doing the majority of the emotional heavy lifting, while Cho is an ideal counterpart, his reticence towards the town and its architecture slowly worn down by seeing how much it can mean to someone — and what the absence of cynicism and dispassion can really bring into one’s life. The relationship between them, thankfully, never becomes explicitly romantic; instead, it’s clear that they do love one another, but in a truly platonic way — more spiritual soulmates than anything else. Parker Posey (Best in Show) and Rory Culkin (Scream 4) are strong in supporting roles, playing, respectively, a colleague of Jin’s father’s, and a graduate student working with Casey at the library.
Culkin in particular precisely captures the awkward and geeky vibe of someone who loves learning and thinking — the kind of person who would get an MLS degree. Additionally, Culkin’s character Gabe provides a significant counterpoint to Casey’s in terms of how Columbus questions the all-consuming importance of higher education, and whether higher education is really required in order for someone to be thoughtful and curious and intellectual. Casey, who doesn’t want to leave her single mother behind and thus hasn’t begun college, is just as smart as Gabe (with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees) on an intuitive level, even if she hasn’t done all the readings, and proves herself far more emotionally intelligent than Gabe, who still subconsciously looks down on Casey for not having pursued higher education.
A key scene early on in Jin and Casey’s friendship sees them at the James Polshek-designed Columbus Regional Hospital Mental Health Services building, where Jin reveals that he’s actually read about it, and brings up Polshek’s conception of architecture as a way to heal people (before cynically dismissing it). In a later sequence, Jin and Casey visit her third favorite building — Deborah Berke’s Irwin Union Bank. Bathed in greenish light, Casey slowly and tentatively brings up this building in particular and how she fell in love with it at a difficult time in her life. When Jin brings up the earlier quotation about architecture healing people, Casey responds cuttingly, “I wasn’t claiming to be healed.”
Yet at the end of the movie, it becomes clear that while architecture didn’t heal Casey’s lingering wounds and soothe her troubles, it gave her the power to change her own life and work towards healing herself. And maybe, in the end, that’s what the best art does. Maybe it’s not supposed to heal you — but change you and how you think and take in the world, and allow you to learn to heal yourself.
Columbus is in theaters now
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