A man and a woman find meaning amidst the ruins of another age: the schematic proffered by Roberto Rossellini in his 1954 masterpiece, Voyage to Italy, remains as vital as ever, constantly spawning successors in that undefinable but all too recognizable strain of modern narrative cinema which makes tourists of disaffected men and women in settings richly endowed with history and forgotten culture. In these films, the setting and its adornments are given the weight of characters themselves, speaking silent truths to those gazing upon them, offering wisdom and comfort to those caught between the contented past and the uncertain future.
It’s a scenario that audiences (mostly festival ones) are by now used to seeing played out in European settings, among mostly European people – Certified Copy, La Sapienza, Museum Hours, and the Before trilogy, to name a few. Tension is often derived from the presence of an interloper from Britain or the U.S. – to say the least, a character containing, unknown to them, a multitude of historical baggage ranging anywhere from the English Reformation and its iconoclasm, to puritanism, capitalism and attendant barbarisms. By coming into contact and meditating upon long-rejected pagan and Catholic architecture, painting, sculpture, and ornamentation, a certain refreshment and cleansing takes place. At its most basic level, as introduced by Rossellini, a spiritual and emotional clarity is ushered in by contact with pre-modern art, and consequently, the sublime, and the cogs of the narrative rumble back into motion, taking our now reborn characters into a new future – a revitalized marriage, the starting of a family, a return to the boring old New World with fresh eyes. It has long been observed that Voyage set into motion a truly modern cinema – that is to say, a cinema of lost people unmoored from tradition, beauty, and community, searching for themselves while traveling – rarely living – amongst its jewels.
It didn’t take long, however, for other filmmakers to begin testing the possibilities of this model against the tangible markers of modernity itself. Eric Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs films, especially Full Moon in Paris and Boyfriends and Girlfriends, locate their unhappy twenty-somethings amongst the experimental designs of Parisian suburbs in the 70’s and 80’s. The blind spots of contemporary taste are thrown into relief against age-old passions and desires; one is left with the hint that smooth spaces devoid of ornamentation and detail are not worthy to play host to the winding intricacies of human passion and desire. Rohmer eventually shed his delicacies in The Tree, The Mayor, and the Mediatheque: “The death penalty should be abolished, except for architects,” declares one recalcitrant.
Into this tradition comes the promising Columbus, the feature debut of gifted video essayist and filmmaker Kogonada. Not least amongst its promising possibilities is the notion of examining questions of space, architecture, identity, and terroir from a thoroughly American starting point. Starting in the 1940s, Columbus, Indiana became a hub for modern architects due to a generous patronage policy introduced by one of the city’s most powerful businessmen. Thanks to his vision and the participation of many architects at the forefront of the movement, it now contains dozens of modernist buildings recognized for their newly-demarcated historic value. One might be hard-pressed to think of a more purely American setting – the whitewashed walls of the Mayflower’s descendants given new lease in concrete slabs paid for by that freshly appointed arbiter of post-WW2 hope and flourishing: the corporation. It is a world of clean lines and glass surfaces, thoroughly composition-ready for the weary Millennial artist.
Against this compelling backdrop, Kogonada has set a very familiar narrative: Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) has dreams of leaving her hometown to study architecture but is worried about abandoning her unstable ex-addict mother. Jin (John Cho) is in town to tend to his gravely ill father, a professor and connoisseur of modern architecture who suddenly collapsed while visiting Columbus. Inevitably these two meet and begin opening up to each other while making an extended tour of the city’s landmarks. As they grow used to each other, a relaxed intimacy makes itself known between them, and their desires and fears for the future become impossible to ignore.
It takes some time for them to meet, however, and the film’s gentle approach is at its best in these early moments, especially when indulging speculative asides between Casey and her library coworker (Rory Culkin). It is rare enough to see characters riff on their academic interests in such detailed and life-like ways; that Kogonada indulges them to such an extent in their initial scenes unfortunately writes a cheque that the rest of the film isn’t as interested in cashing.
Indeed, Columbus would be as lovely and unassuming as all that sounds were it not for a shattering misstep early in Casey and Jin’s interactions, one that belies the level of commitment the film harbours towards marrying its academic and narrative concerns: while taking Jin on his first proper tour of the city’s major landmarks, Casey lapses into a clinical tour guide’s lecture. Jin interrupts her, exhorting her to stop saying what she thinks about a building and start saying what she feels. At this point the moment could still rest safely under a solid, if clunky, character beat – Jin, after all, is the skeptic in this survey of the virtues of modern design. Where Columbus falters and never recovers is in the immediate moments following this: instead of sharing Casey’s re-calibrated words, the dialogue fades out and yet another indie-signifying ambient electronic score takes over. Casey’s words are left unheard and unknown in the wake of an artificially imposed reverie. How she relates to her hometown becomes yet another mystery of the sublime, ironically draining it of any significance; by shooting for a vague but pleasant impression of meaning, Kogonada robs us of the gift of specificity (that it unquestioningly affirms a false dichotomy between intellectual and emotional approaches to art is its second unforgivable move).
It’s more or less downhill from here, as Kogonada’s script takes on increasingly unfortunate ballast with one heavily workshopped character dilemma after another. The bulk of its actual running time is concerned more with the psychological and family baggage carried by both leads. This would prove at least somewhat resonant if it weren’t so clearly torqued to provide entry points for as general an audience as possible, and the heavy early emphasis on the unusual setting results in a weirdly reversed arthouse trojan horse: a film with the promise of an uncommercial but insightful and playful exploration into its subjects human and concrete is actually smuggling a pretty tedious bag of coming-of-age and parent-child conflicts. No matter how hard Richardson and Cho try to imbue depth into these empty shells – at best, they both excel within a register of bruised anticipation – they are undone by a constant recourse to the tropes of American coming-of-age rites: nursing beers at an empty park, shaking off the stress with a midnight dance in the headlights, even a break-and-enter to wander the empty hallways of Casey’s old high school.
Kogonada’s vision of these characters seems to struggle between taking them as they are in relation to their surroundings – ciphers wandering through one rectilinear prison after another – and granting them generous opportunities to confess every last detail of subtext. This is often underlined by an elegant and simple formal schema: major conversations are introduced in a wide shot that establishes Casey and Jin’s relationship to their surroundings, accompanied by a topic of discussion involving a given building. When the conversation turns personal, Kogonada shifts into standard medium shot-reverse coverage. The point here is not that such a tried-and-true (and truthfully, exquisitely executed) humanist approach is inappropriate – not at all. It is that must inevitably play handmaiden to one verbose exchange after another. The meat of Columbus is its constant self-disclosure; there is nothing about this setting in particular that demands such self-revelation.
If we think of the tradition marked out above and some of its most breathtaking moments – Bergman at Pompeii, the brides of Lucigagno, the light in San Ivo; moments borne out by a patient gaze, by silence or a carefully attuned natural soundscape – what becomes visible in Columbus, by contrast, is its sheer verbosity. In true Protestant fashion, it is ultimately a series of testimonies first, poetry second. As dialogues shift from the academic to the personal, one can feel the the antsiness of the American narrative tradition behind it – get to the real stuff already! And it does; Casey and Jin never truly lose themselves in discussing what they’re interested in, as a Rohmer protagonist might; one begins to sense that these warm-ups are only that – necessary pylons marking a lane change into the ‘relatable’ motivations that an audience actually cares about. It’s not about what they think; it’s about how they feel.
And what do they feel? Some sort of repression is being loosed here; one of the interesting notions left more or less unexplored is that of a millennial malaise husbanded precisely by the physical markers of a previous generation’s rupture with the past. These buildings are not in ruins but they may as well be, for all they represent of the failure of postwar liberalism, of a hope born from rupture and abjuration of the past. But this remains outside the scope of Kogonada’s project; emotional resonance is limited to the most basic and immediately psychological motivating factors.
Once this becomes clear, it further becomes obvious that the setting of Columbus matters little to the actual proceedings of the drama; we have a will-she-won’t-she dilemma about leaving home and a son facing down his father wounds. Casey and Jin would have had the same problems and the same path to sharing their pain in any other place; perhaps this is the point. What remains is indeed a reasonably compelling, elegantly arranged duet of longing and release, but one prevented from inhabiting its setting with a truly natural and unassuming flexibility. It is a world that appreciates art, beauty, and inspiration only as far as its ability to start a conversation about something else. And here we can see Columbus’ uniquely American stamp on Rossellini’s blueprint: a de-sacralized and disenchanted world of individual merit that ends, not with communion, but the open road.