Tale of ‘meth and modernism’

The un­der­stated film ‘Colum­bus’ of­fers a com­plex por­trait of small-town Amer­ica.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - CHRISTO­PHER HAWTHORNE AR­CHI­TEC­TURE CRITIC christo­pher.hawthorne @la­times.com Twit­ter: @HawthorneLAT

The cam­era barely moves in “Colum­bus.”

The de­but fea­ture from the sin­gle-named di­rec­tor Kog­o­nada — who first gained no­tice in Hol­ly­wood for his video es­says on Ya­su­jiro Ozu, Wes An­der­son, Stan­ley Kubrick and other film­mak­ers — is set in the mod­ern-ar­chi­tec­ture mecca of Colum­bus, Ind. (Pop­u­la­tion as of the 2010 cen­sus: 44,061.) Along with Ha­ley Lu Richard­son, John Cho and Parker Posey, the stars of the movie in­clude Eero Saari­nen’s Miller House (1957) and North Christian Church (1964), I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memo­rial Li­brary (1969) and James Ste­wart Pol­shek’s Quinco Men­tal Health Cen­ter (1972).

The way Kog­o­nada and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Elisha Christian, frame these build­ings, with an un­hur­ried series of static shots, says a lot about the larger story they’re try­ing to tell. Once in a long while there’s a sub­tle zoom or an al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble track­ing shot, but in gen­eral this is a film very much about still­ness, one firmly rooted in place.

Or rather it’s a film about how tricky it can be to find a bal­ance be­tween root­ed­ness and am­bi­tion. The ar­chi­tects who came to build in Colum­bus be­gin­ning in the 1940s — thanks in large part to the pa­tron­age of J. Ir­win Miller, chair­man of the Cum­mins En­gine Co., and his wife, Xe­nia Si­mons Miller — were not only lead­ing fig­ures in the pro­fes­sion but also in many cases ex­em­plars of what be­came known be­tween World War I and II as the In­ter­na­tional Style. Their ar­rival hinted at the ways in which Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture and the larger cul­ture were poised to change in the decades ahead, traf­fick­ing in­creas­ingly in global ideas and — if the harsh­est cri­tiques of modernism are to be be­lieved — ne­glect­ing lo­cal con­text and re­gional char­ac­ter along the way.

The ex­tent to which that traf­fic qual­i­fies as progress is one of the many themes that run silently be­neath the sur­face of “Colum­bus.” Richard­son (best known for roles in “The Edge of Seven­teen” and M. Night Shya­malan’s “Split”) is su­perb as Casey, a smart, guarded 19year-old who grew up in Colum­bus and, hav­ing put off col­lege for the time be­ing, is re­luc­tant to leave. Cho is sim­i­larly ef­fec­tive and un­der­stated as Jin, a trans­la­tor who has flown in from Seoul be­cause his fa­ther, a well-known ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian who came to Colum­bus to give a lec­ture, col­lapsed out­side Saari­nen’s church and re­mains in a coma in the lo­cal hos­pi­tal.

They wind up bond­ing over vis­its to a num­ber of land­marks in town, de­spite Jin’s ini­tial in­sis­tence that he hates ar­chi­tec­ture. Be­fore long, their con­ver­sa­tions have ranged well be­yond the sub­jects that fill guide­book en­tries. About half­way through the movie, Casey tells Jin, al­most off-hand­edly, “You know, meth is a big thing here. Meth and modernism.”

She says this as the two of them are shar­ing a cig­a­rette in the park­ing lot of Ir­win Union Bank, a build­ing de­signed by Deb­o­rah Berke, who runs a New York firm and last year be­came ar­chi­tec­ture dean at Yale. Though she never ap­pears on-screen, Berke emerges as a sig­nif­i­cant part of the sto­ry­line in “Colum­bus,” a sym­bol of the op­por­tu­ni­ties wait­ing for Casey if she can ever break free of her home­town.

The ref­er­ences to meth — and an ad­dic­tion sto­ry­line in­volv­ing Casey’s mother, played by Michelle Forbes — sug­gest a movie that has more than ar­chi­tec­ture on its mind, that sees fa­mous build­ings less as stylish back­drops and more as the means to a the­matic end. In a typ­i­cal Hol­ly­wood movie, im­por­tant ar­chi­tec­ture, es­pe­cially im­por­tant mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, would be a sym­bol of big-city so­phis­ti­ca­tion (or even, as doc­u­men­tar­ian Thom Andersen and oth­ers have pointed out, of de­viance or crim­i­nal­ity). A town in the mid­dle of In­di­ana would be, in its folksi­ness and lo­cal color as well as its strug­gles, a foil for that far-away glam­our.

But Kog­o­nada wraps the so­phis­ti­ca­tion and the strug­gle to­gether in a sin­gle lo­cale. (In ad­di­tion to di­rect­ing, he wrote the film’s screen­play, which takes a while to get going and whose ar­chi­tec­tural metaphors could use some shoring up.) Casey wants to stay in Colum­bus be­cause she feels an obli­ga­tion to take care of her mother — and a kin­ship with the town’s ar­chi­tec­ture. Jin is trapped in Colum­bus be­cause of his fa­ther’s con­di­tion but at least out­wardly rejects Casey’s sense of fa­mil­ial obli­ga­tion.

They are mir­ror im­ages of one an­other, ex­is­ten­tially speak­ing. As qui­etly am­bi­tious as she is, Casey should leave but wants to stay. As dire as his fa­ther’s health is, Jin should stay but wants to leave.

The film of­fers a sub­tle cri­tique of glob­al­iza­tion and a timely por­trait of Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica. It’s a re­minder that the sense among long­time red-state res­i­dents that they’re un­der­es­ti­mated or over­looked by big-city elites is a lay­ered and com­plex grudge, some­times flow­ing from ig­no­rance or at least provin­cial­ism and some­times from gen­uine pride of place.

Colum­bus is Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s home­town. This fact is never men­tioned in “Colum­bus,” but once you’ve seen the film it makes a strange sort of sense. You might even say it points to one of Kog­o­nada’s guid­ing themes, one that’s sur­pris­ing only by the stan­dards of Hol­ly­wood: the idea that small towns in small­ish states in the mid­dle of the coun­try are ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing hu­man be­ings as con­tra­dic­tory, com­pli­cated and self-in­ter­ested as any­where else — even the sort of politi­cian who is deeply re­li­gious and stead­fastly con­ser­va­tive and at the same time sup­ports the agenda of a pres­i­dent who is fa­mously, fla­grantly nei­ther.

I vis­ited Colum­bus sev­eral years ago, on a driv­ing trip across the coun­try. I found some of the build­ings dis­ap­point­ing, in part be­cause they seemed to sag un­der the bur­den of know­ing they had to com­pete for at­ten­tion. Maybe my ex­pec­ta­tions were too high. But the places where tro­phy build­ings are grouped to­gether — the cam­pus of the Vi­tra de­sign com­pany in Ger­many and the neo-tra­di­tional town of Sea­side, Fla., are two other ex­am­ples that come to mind — of­ten turn out this way.

That’s one rea­son Colum­bus works so well as a set­ting for this story and for Kog­o­nada, whose video es­says are marked by a foren­sic at­ten­tion to de­tail. The loy­al­ties of the town’s most sig­nif­i­cant land­marks are di­vided in all sorts of ways: be­tween the needs of ev­ery­day users and the ex­pec­ta­tions of ar­chi­tec­tural tourists, be­tween the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of work­horse and show horse, be­tween com­mu­nity fab­ric and in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity. Casey and Jin can re­late.

Pho­to­graphs by Elisha Christian Su­perla­tive Films

EERO SAARI­NEN’S North Christian Church has a role in “Colum­bus,” a film set in a mod­ern-ar­chi­tec­ture mecca. It stars Ha­ley Lu Richard­son and John Cho.

THE LIV­ING ROOM of Saari­nen’s Miller House in Colum­bus, Ind., fea­tures a “con­ver­sa­tion pit.”

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