The year is 2017, and for young film auteurs, the process of being “discovered” has never been murkier. Gone are the days of a select few being scooped up by big studios and catapulted to stardom; instead we have the gold rush for views on industry-trawled sites Vimeo or Shortoftheweek and a smattering of debatable crossover artists (from your Jake Paul’s crashing and burning at Disney after much Vine success, all the way to the other end of the spectrum in which Jordan Peele of comedy duo Key & Peele made the best film of the past year). Comedian Bo Burnham, in an interview with TCNJ Lions Television in 2016, spoke of his early stardom on apps such as Vine and Youtube (which he has crossed over into several critically acclaimed Netflix specials) as being a part of a golden age of internet auteurs which has now dive bombed into ad revenue and clickbait.
“This was supposed to be the medium which bypassed all the corporations - and it isn’t! We lost,” Burnham says to a pair of college-age interviewers. He tosses his hands in the air; “We lost the internet. It had a chance to be, like, the people’s medium, and we lost.”
Well, it’s time to meet the man who will save the internet. Or, the concept of using it as a tool to market yourself as a budding artist, at least. Kogonada was in the middle of writing a PhD dissertation on the films of Yasujiro Ozu when he began creating short video essays on his favorite film auteurs. These videos garnered interest from the industry, and eventual support from Depth of Field for his first feature; Columbus. He married his scholarly approach of film history with his passion for modernism, and the result is one of intense emotional and intellectual catharsis. Columbus is both an affirmation of the now and a nod of respect for the past - it begs the question in spaces and places: how does one move forward into the future?
Set in the titular Columbus, Indiana, a town populated by striking modernist structures, one is moved by the juxtaposition of vertical lines to the inherent standstill brought on by small town life. This is a film in which the background is just as important as the foreground, and the structures illuminated by deep depths of field play equally dynamic characters as the son of an esteemed architecture professor Jin (John Cho), and his newfound friend Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman with dreams of being an architect herself yet is frozen in life caring for an ex-addict mother. As the two walk and talk through the town and make false starts towards love interests (Jin with his father’s assistant played by the ever- poised Parker Posey, Casey with the perfectly pedantic librarian coworker played by Rory Culkin) the camera captures moments of ambient emotion. Questions of what it means to be stuck and what it means to move on are exhumed from the landscape and the tender performances by Richardson and Cho.
An inconsequential shot of a child smiling at Casey from behind a backyard fence is molded into an analysis on modernism when Casey eventually leaves to pursue her career and Kogonada revisits the shot of the fence once more, but this time places it sequentially in a row of shots of other horizontal lines in famous modernist buildings in the town. This rickety chain link’s equal placement next to sleek structures is illustrative of Casey’s approach to architecture; an affirmation of emotion as being the best reason to make art - not money, not fame, not accolades. Kogonada shows us throughout the film that he understands how to speak cinematic language; in other words, he knows how to use the frame of a shot to elevate an object or a person into a part of a common narrative.
It is not just visuals which make Columbus so elegant - it is a really, really good idea for a script. Where better to place a girl stuck in her past than in a small nowhere's-ville town... full of modernism? Columbus is as unlikely a location as Casey an inhabitant; extremely bright and thoughtful, she joins the ranks of badass nuanced new- age heroines; complicated, imperfect, well-intentioned, emotive, and reaching gently but earnestly for the best in us all. One shot of Richardson’s performance struck me deeply; she is outside Cho’s house at an emotional low point, asking him to come on a walk with her to see a building she likes. He declines, saying it is late in the evening, but she pushes forward and asks again. Her face is full of such terrifying vulnerability: is the feeling of asking someone you like to spend time with you and not knowing if they want to spend that time uncommon to anyone? The film is full of these moments of aching humanity, and it is a treat for introspection into moments of your own life which felt painful though you did not know why.
Columbus is what happens when you love a topic so much you dedicate your life to it, and I am so pleased that money is being diverted into projects like this. This is who should be making movies right now; the passionate and the thoughtful, not simply the biggest personalities or the loudest yellers or the most dogged marketers. We are in the process of learning how to really plumb the internet for it’s full capabilities, and I can’t wait to see who follows in Kogonada’s footsteps. It is delightful to see a real academic work in the art world, and each audience member will walk out of Columbus with not only a bit of an interest in architecture, but also a renewed zeal for whatever dreams they may have of their own.