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Categories: Movie Reviews

The cinematography and production design in Kogonada’s Columbus are an undeniable treat for anyone’s eyes but the mind may be left wanting.

Columbus is the feature-length debut of writer and director Kogonada, known mostly to the world as the creator of various popular video shorts (sometimes called essays), posted and shared on various platforms on the internet, which explore movements in world cinema as well as the aesthetic, and stylistic, habits of auteur filmmakers. (Stanley Kubrick, Yasujirō Ozu, Wes Anderson – to name a few.) His primary focus seeming to be, from the perspective of a relative non-fan, the feelings evoked by structure and symmetry within shot composition and production design.

Naturally, Columbus is pretty gorgeous. It’s plain to see from the striking opening shots of The Miller House and Garden. The star of the show is, unquestionably, the film’s location – the titular Columbus, Indiana. A city famed for its collection of modernist architecture. The film is clearly very focussed on how different kinds of space within the frame elicit different kinds of moods from the audience. I wouldn’t call it an overly academic experience, though academia and its importance in how subjects view themselves is a running theme, but it is often a little sterile.

Haley Lu Richardson’s performance, specifically, is what gives Columbus an emotional, and relatable, centre. But, for a film so concerned with the unconventional, the course of events is a little hackneyed, to the point of being passé, and contrived, to the point of being a little pretentious.

If I had to pick a big figure from indie cinema, who Kogonada’s work reminds me of, I’d probably have to say Zach Braff. Columbus is about Interesting Intellectuals having Interesting Intellectual Conversations. Strangers meeting in a small town, due to something comparable to a funeral or family tragedy, and discovering a profound, perhaps unspoken and definitely sexually unfulfilled, connection which changes their respective lives and outlooks. The problem is that the conversations aren’t that interesting (they’re a little interesting) and the problems the characters face are usually a bit, as the kids say, First World. Without entertaining situations balancing it, it can seem a little masturbatory.

If you’re able to just let Elisha Christian’s cinematography sort of glide over you then the experience can be quite peaceful, maybe even a little reflective, but the lack of energy in camera movement and music can also draw attention to how unrealistic the characters are too.

The film moves at a consciously ambling pace which, oftentimes, feels very smooth but the transitions between scenes are jagged enough to draw attention to how inorganically they come into being and the stillness of the shots often highlights how afraid Kogonada seems to be of real intimacy. There are very few close-ups in the film, if any at all, and, while some of the best scenes are the ones where it’s all in the one take and the wide shot, Columbus comes off more as a film that understands the importance of emotion more than a film that is, itself, emotional. Like an essay.   

Columbus is out now in select UK cinemas.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on Oct 5, 2018

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