"This is all for one picture?" a disbelieving bystander asks of the titular photographer, Gregory Crewdson, in Ben Shapiro's documentary, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. The film follows the photographer as he toils over, and creates, his ambitious "Beneath the Roses" photo series, which employs large crews and equipment, often closing off portions of streets in the western Massachusetts towns that serve as the setting for his haunting portraits.
It's no wonder bystanders question the absurdity of what they are witnessing, as the production costs involved to capture a single image can rival the budgets of some independent movies.
Inspired by artists such as Alfred Hitchock, Cindy Sherman and David Lynch (he admits that seeing Blue Velvet changed his life), Crewdson's elaborately constructed photo tableaux capture the surface of a down-on-your-luck façade, while hinting at dark secrets lurking below. Each of his photos suggests an unfolding narrative, but only provides viewers an isolated moment in time.
Shot over the span of ten years, Shapiro effectively captures the intense effort and unscrupulous attention to detail that go into Crewdson's micromanaging method, following the creative process from conception to the final impressive result. In one scene, after days of preparation leading up to a studio shoot, the tension reaches a panic moment before a final shot can be taken: a newborn baby being featured in a scene refuses to fall asleep in a particular position.
Presented with a light overview of Crewdson's past, we learn of his interest in secret lives, his short stint with the band the Speedies (their sole hit, eerily enough, is entitled "Let Me Take Your Photo") and how he would listen through the floorboards to his psychoanalyst father's basement home office and eavesdrop on the patients.
Crewdson's work is distinctive and the film does an excellent job leading us to understand the precise nature of the artist's vision. The pictures are about the search for a moment or, rather, the perfect moment where it all makes sense. Shapiro manages to hone in on the essence of his subject, fitting a wealth of material into a tight 77-minute run-time.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a captivating documentary work that gives those familiar, and unfamiliar, with the artist an insightful look at his process and motivations. (Films We Like)