Last night at the Architecture and Design Film Festival, besides the many architects in black in a lounge filled with Hastens beds which gave it the air of a Tinder musical-beds meet up, a dance performance piece therein which was apparently meant to say something about the human body in space but instead continued the vaguely sexual theme as they writhed-against-columns, legendary Kevin Roche passing by in all his nonagenarian wonderfulness (also the subject of a film biography), Kogonada's film Columbus was being presented, the first time a narrative film had broken through the stated mission of the festival which is to show non-fiction documentaries.
Columbus has been on the festival circuit and in sporadic release for a while and is now on Itunes, but it was an excellent film to see on the wide screen. Beautifully shot in Columbus, Indiana, the home of Irwin Miller’s (Cummins Engine) city wide 20th century project to bring worthy modernist architecture to an industrial town in the Midwest, it is the coming of age story of a young woman, a high school graduate who is trying to find her way in the world—and it turns out her way is through the architecture around which she has grown up.
The story is simple. An architecture professor is visiting the sites of Columbus. He collapses at Eliel Saarinen’s glorious church despite the presence of his devoted but momentarily inattentive minder Eleanor (Parker Posey, the ever faithful indie actress), and he is taken to the medical center for an indeterminate stay. His son,Jim (John Cho) a translator, arrives from Korea to manage things, and instead falls in step with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) as she shows him the city from her distinctly home grown perspective. People are trying to push Casey away from home, but she has come to love and respect her hometown.The son who is estranged from his father ends up staying, the daughter who has been her ex meth-head mother-in-recovery caregiver, leaves.
What a pleasure to be able to see inside and outside so many thoughtful architectural projects, especially the Alexander Girard conversation pit at the Miller house. The film is the best advertisement for architecture I’ve seen in a long while and I am making plans to visit Columbus (along with another Midwestern pilgrimage to Cranbrook) However, much self regarding, portentous dialog ensues. Think Last Year at Marienbad, also a film about finding one’s way amidst architecture.
The filmmaker was on hand to discuss his reverence for architecture and his interest in familial relationships and portraying the concept of negative space. But alas, I had just seen Greta Gerwig’s marvelous film LadyBird which is also a young girl’s coming of age story about her relationship with her parents and her much less architecturally splendiferous city, Sacramento, and it suffers in counterpoint. Gerwig’s film isn’t a masterpiece, but it has some of the most un self conscious, truly inspired dialog I have heard in a long time, a very winning set of performances, no affectation, and very little negative space. The characters are instead bunched up against each other, amidst Sacramento’s largely pedestrian core (though a spectacular bridge) and its through line is the very opposite, in fact, it is centered around the girl’s overwhelming desire to get away from home.
The problem with Columbus is that it takes as its goals a mirror of architectural imperatives, which are not the same as film making imperatives, in fact quite the contrary. Though its goals are admirable, in serving the architecture, it serves less well the film. Still, I recommend it as an introduction to a homegrown architectural wonderland.