Movie Review: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters Offers a Portrait of an Artist as Creative Critic

Gregory Crewdson photographs ambiguous scenes that present frozen landscapes that capture singular and suggestive moments of life. Draped in unnatural, but evocative light, and often featured dissociated characters mimicking Nighthawks at the Diner-gazes, Crewdson’s photos look like scenes of unmade movies. It makes sense, then, that documentary filmmaker Ben Shapiro would want to make a movie about their creator. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a bio-portrait in three parts: focusing on the artist’s life, process, and work.

In terms of Crewdson’s art, Edward Hopper is an overwhelming influence on these images, so much so that if they were paintings, and not photographs, they would hardly be regarded as artistic achievements. But they are photos, which adds a layer of intrigue. To create them, Crewdson constructs large scale, movie-like productions. He uses staging techniques and soundstages to control all of the elements in the frame. He creates a scene with theatrical technique and captures the product on film. The process blurs the mediums of photography, cinema, performance, and installation in a way that is closer to the work of Cindy Sherman.

Films about artists can be rudimentary affairs. There’s an introduction to the work, the backstory about the childhood, the critics who are fans of the artists interviewed to draw out the artist’s influence and why you should respect him or her. What proves most interesting about Ben Shapiro’s documentary about Crewdson is not so much the discussion of the work or the details about the artist’s unspectacular backstory (he grew up in Park Slope the son of a psychiatrist). Rather it is watching Crewdson’s process. “Creation is really criticism,” T.S. Elliot wrote, describing the act of art as part making and part making sure what you have made is relevant and good. Crewdson is a photographer who no longer hits the exposure button on the camera. Rather, he is an artist whose craft is a function of his gifted critical eye.