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Sundance Dispatch 3: Columbus, Golden Exits

Columbus

Columbus certainly doesn’t look like a standard American independent film: even if you didn’t know debuting director kogonada’s background as a video essayist primarily concerned with High Art (Bresson, Tarkovsky et al.), it’s clear this is made by somebody who’s studied the framing of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang et al. quite closely. No matter how mundane the setting — average small downtown streets, a drab university library — kogonada and DP Elisha Christian stick to the visual philosophy espoused by architecture-obsessed protagonist Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) as she annotates one building’s properties, noting how it’s “asymmetrical but also still balanced.” I don’t think there’s a bad shot in the film, and not in a facilely “beautiful” way. There’s thoughtful technical work throughout: an otherwise unexceptional dialogue between Casey and coworker Gabriel (Rory Culkin) is preceded by a shot of a dude watering plants while listening to thumping electronica. Both sounds are retained after the dialogue starts, adding texture and dimension to a potentially sonically dry exchange. 

And yet despite Columbus not looking like an Amerindie, it is one, in increasingly disappointing ways. Casey is a going-nowhere girl who works at the university library in Columbus, Indiana, spending large amounts of time hanging out with her mom and delaying going to school. In a separate plot line that obviously cannot remain so, Jin (John Cho) arrives in town after his father — a prominent scholar/theorist of architecture — collapses, requiring indefinite hospitalization. There is a certain unacknowledged inevitability in their meeting and the subsequent dialing up of romantic tension, but the film plays coy, even potentially platonic for a long time before allowing what must happen to develop.

In between/during plot points, Casey and Jin visit her favorite buildings around town; early comparisons have pegged the film as in the Linklater Before Various Times of Day vein, but it’s closer to Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, insofar as discussions of Eero Saarinen et al. are (sometimes) allowed to unfold for their own intellectual sake rather than simply providing cues for an evolving relationship. That’s good, but the film’s increasing emotional reticence — while on the one hand a logical fit for characters who self-identify as “bookish” — also seems increasingly like a determined wish to project a “quiet,” “gentle” “wisdom” that hasn’t been earned. Hou’s films may seem exceptionally discreet and reserved at first glance, but they seethe with political rage, disruptive emotions and sexual tensions: their compositional exactitude and discretion is in constant play against the material. Columbus mostly seems like a movie that doesn’t want to disturb anyone, which is counterproductive when you’ve got characters wrestling with increasingly obvious, quite serious emotional problems related to damage done by their parents.

A conversation between Casey and her mom about a dinner the former’s made has her defending relative underseasoning: “I was going for something subtle.” “Why?” asks mom. Because, the daughter says, you can taste the food better. That’s a definite mission statement/bit of self-congratulation and it’s unearned, and this skittish gentleness of spirit means, of course, that there’s no room for jokes. There’s a scene where Casey has an awkward conversation in the library stacks with a shallow Mean Girl who’s just returned from studying abroad, the purpose of which is to establish in dialogue that Casey is stalled while also positively contrasting her (and you, the thoughtful viewer) as intellectually/emotionally superior to unreflective normals. In this scene, Rory Culkin — who shares the freakishly uniform, always enjoyable comic instincts of his siblings — is behind the two of them, disappearing behind a shelf before slowly looming his head back out in disbelief, a purely visual bit of humor that otherwise is unpermissable. For all the admirable specificity of Cho’s Korean-born character and his attendant wrestling with the multiple axes of his identity, which is the best non-technical thing about the film, this is increasingly self-consciously somber and generic in its trajectory — which, of course, is carefully unresolved. Columbus is an apprentice film showing tremendous visual instincts and a lot of work to be done on the other end.

Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits premiered last night to a wave of Twitter responses that were outstandingly negative, and this morning’s P&I screening was accordingly underpopulated, especially for a movie with Big Names in it — that’s simply not the norm. It’s a little strange that the film is being perceived as a whiff, or a step in a wrong/different direction, instead of one that logically continues from his previous work. ARP’s stated goal was to make a film “without a single moment or bit of characterization that could possibly be thought of as abrasive, confrontational, negative, what have you.” This comes out in a different form through his anti-protagonist Nick (Adam Horovitz) just before a small dinner party: “I would love a situation without torment or turmoil and I believe that is within reach.” OK, fine, so here’s some sample non-abrasive dialogue: “The normal existence of my sister makes me lose my appetite.” “I felt relief in the worst possible way when mom died.” Here is a non-hostile exchange: “I really like Gwen.” “Give it time.” So, it’s not like we’re in totally new terrain here: the ARP norm is very much a group of people who sound suspiciously similar (different parts of the same brain rather than firmly differentiated characters) being articulately mean to each other while using the same vernacular and syntactical structure. Golden Exits is maybe 30% less abrasive than its predecessors, but it’s still very much in the same pocket.

Nick is an archivist who gets a foxy Australian assistant (Emily Browning) for the summer, immediately raising the specter of potential infidelity — something Nick’s wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny) picks up on much faster than he does. There are a lot of characters and plots spinning off from/around this central strand, but the general theme is anxiety: about being unmarried in your 30s and having to constantly answer for it, the dangers of merging your professional/personal lives, sudden sexual urges that can destroy relationships, and above all about lying to yourself (and, by extension, everyone around you). Everyone in this movie constantly lies to themselves about what they’re feeling: it is a movie that’s hyper-self-aware about people who think they’re self-aware, because they talk a lot, all the time, in profoundly baroque paragraphs. Hyperarticulacy can be a conduit to honesty, but it can also be the exact opposite: the longer you talk and explain things, the more you’re evading the thing you don’t actually want to say or acknowledge, and at a certain point it’s actually a form of aggression and violence rather than an attempt to be straight with someone else. All of which is conveyed loud and clear.

There is possibly a lot to pick at, not least the return of Queen of Earth‘s sister duologues, which do seem to emerge directly from a dude’s brain. And yet this sense of a movie emerging from a mind that can only be itself (rather than one which can accommodate and assimilate genuinely other voices) is a weakness that’s a strength: it’s certainly personal, conveys a strong POV and gives this formally modest film a fever dream aura that would otherwise be absent. At a certain level, you either find this funny or you don’t: it’s floridly verbal, self-absorbed, and prototypically NYC-ish in a way that could be immensely offputting. On a technical level, ARP is getting better with each film: with Robert Greene still acting as editor, the performances are perfectly cut, but I don’t think there’s a single match-cut error in the film, and there’s a sense of no set-up being wasted that wasn’t true a few films ago. (The 16mm-to-digital transfer is really good, with grain swirling even on the opening black leader.) But for crying out loud: among other things, this features one of my favorite bars in NYC (when in Carroll Gardens, go to Boat), and it seems clear in retrospect there was no way I wouldn’t dig it. As with Noah Baumbach’s films, on a certain level I wonder outside of a certain kind of tristate social nexus could possibly care about this — and, equally, I don’t really care.

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