For whatever reason, 2012 has yielded a bumper crop of documentary films about prominent artists: Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, and Gerhard Richter have all seen their work showcased on the big screen this past year. Why not? It’s often engrossing to see the creative process in action with great artists (as opposed to, say, great writers). Appropriately enough, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth brought all those films to town, and this weekend it delivers yet another one with Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, which is well worth a look.
The subject is a corpulent, slovenly dressed middle-aged Brooklyn native who’s close to completing Beneath the Roses, an eight-year project that was originally planned as a film but has become a series of fantastical, enigmatic, giant-sized staged photographs, each requiring the preparation and budget of an independent film project. Interior shots are taken on large, specially built sets on soundstages, while exterior shots are on city streets that have been closed down for the purpose.
Frequently taken in run-down factory towns in Massachusetts, his lush pictures evoke a decaying suburbia lit by twilight. Crewdson’s cinema-influenced work is compared to that of Cindy Sherman and his mentor, Laurie Simmons (who is interviewed in the film), but it’s heavily reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings, captured moments of alienation and reflective melancholy that invite extended contemplation. Who is that woman wandering barefoot in a taxi depot’s parking lot or that man staring down into his basement? What is in their minds, and what has led them here?
You’ll get no answers to that last set of questions from this movie, as the artist professes not to think about those issues. Instead we see extensive footage of him at work, setting up shots with director of photography Richard Sands and coaching the nonprofessional models who pose as subjects in his pictures. (One is Crewdson’s cleaning lady, photographed sitting pensively on a curb in front of a bar.) One shot of a snow-blanketed city street needs vehicles, pedestrians, and lights inside buildings arranged just so before the snow melts, while another photo of a mother and her newborn baby in a cheap motel room is hampered because the baby keeps waking up when it’s laid down on the bed. Finally a crew member thinks to place a heating blanket under the bedsheet and lay the baby down on top of that. The baby goes right to sleep, and Crewdson gets his shot.
Crewdson gives some clues to his deeper motivation in tracing his background as the son of a psychoanalyst who treated patients in the basement of his house. The theme of buried secrets running through Beneath the Roses is teased out somewhat by novelists Russell Banks and Rick Moody, admirers of the artist. This 77-minute film still would have profited from a few more voices from art critics to hash out the importance of Crewdson’s work. Even so, both fans and newcomers will find it worthwhile to spend this time luxuriating in the numinous and gently sad world that Gregory Crewdson’s meticulously arranged photographs conjure up.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters
Starring Gregory Crewdson. Directed by Ben Shapiro. Not rated. Fri-Sun at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St, FW. $6.50-8.50. 817-738-9215.