First Impressions guest post: ‘Columbus’

Today, I am very excited to introduce you to a guest post by Dale Coleman, a librarian I am lucky enough to work with in real life — and a fellow movie buff. We have enjoyed many interesting conversations about movies! Dale is the one who alerted me to Columbus, which also made several film critics’ “best of ” lists of 2017, as I highlighted in a post a few weeks ago. I asked Dale to contribute a guest post of his own “first impressions” of Columbus, in the tradition of my other “first impressions” posts of reel librarian films.

Dale has a wicked sense of humor and is one of the kindest fellow librarians I have ever had the pleasure to work with. You can enjoy his insight and sense of humor here on his Twitter account and his Instagram account. Dale also talks about movies online, here on his Letterboxd profile. After the “Columbus plot + trailer” section below are Dale’s thoughts and “first impressions” of Columbus. Enjoy!

Columbus plot + trailer

A quick introduction to the film Columbus, which is the debut film from director Kogonada. The film stars Haley Lu Richardson as a young library worker living in Columbus, Indiana, who also loves architecture. She meets Jin (John Cho) and starts to show him her favorite buildings around the city. (A quick glimpse of the library can be seen in the trailer below, at 1:24 mins.) Rory Culkin plays Haley Lu Richardson’s co-worker, the library director, and he enjoys a fair amount of screen time.

Columbus Trailer #1 (2017) | Movieclips Indie,” uploaded by Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films, Standard YouTube license

‘First impressions’ of Columbus from a real-life librarian

by Dale Coleman

There are two scenes in Kogonada’s visually rich and quietly stirring debut feature, Columbus, that I identify with more than any scene from any other film in 2017 (with the possible exception of Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in A Ghost Story). The first scene is one in which it is revealed that John Cho’s character once confessed his undying love to Parker Posey’s character when he was 17 years old. Same here.

The second scene I identified with requires a bit of backstory.

In late 2012, I found myself at an existential crossroads. After completing my undergraduate degree and promptly realizing that there probably was no future for me in public relations or campaign speech writing, I decided to go a different way. Drawing from my delightful work study experience as a circulation assistant and a handful of research assistant jobs, I landed a gig as a reference specialist at Tacoma Community College. In short time, I realized it was the library life for me. Accordingly, around this time, as I weighed the prospects of pursuing an advanced degree in library science, a fun Forbes article made the rounds within the library blogosphere. In a ranking of master’s degrees, based on employment prospects and mid-career median salary, the MLS ranked… (you already know) dead last. I decided to power through and get my MLIS anyway. Buoyed by data from job satisfaction surveys, a handful of wonderful mentors, and my own overwhelmingly positive experience working in libraries, I got my dang master’s (and a job). I’m super glad I did.

Anyway, you can imagine the kaleidoscope of delight, anxiety, and empathy blooming in my consciousness, as this very Forbes article is referenced at the beginning of Columbus, a softly-told coming-of-age/coming-to-terms story, set amid the modernist architectural wonders of Columbus, Indiana. In this particular scene, Casey, a circulation assistant (played by Haley Lu Richardson, who seems poised for world domination) chats career prospects with her librarian colleague, Gabe (played with disaffected, smart-guy irony, by an all-grown up Rory Culkin). “Whatever you do, don’t get an MLS,” Gabe tells Casey in a deadpan mansplain. “It was recently declared the worst master’s for a job.” In spite of  my bubbling defensiveness, I was kinda thrilled to see, even briefly, this weirdly specific, if somewhat pessimistic, depiction of librarianship as a career path.

Screenshot from 'Columbus' (2017)

Screenshot from ‘Columbus’ (2017)

Happily, Columbus is not a film about the job prospects for people with advanced degrees in library science. Casey (Richardson) is a recent high school graduate with an eye for architecture and a promising spark. She has a loving, but complicated, relationship with her mother, with whom she lives and very much fears abandoning. Jin (played by John Cho) arrives in Columbus, on leave from his high-pressure job in South Korea, to look after his estranged father in the wake of a medical emergency. Each at their own crossroads, the two strike up an unlikely friendship, touring the town’s architecture and sorting out their complementary existential dilemmas.

Screenshot from 'Columbus' (2017)

Screenshot from ‘Columbus’ (2017)

The visual appeal of this film is immediately striking. Anyone with even a passing interest in architecture will appreciate the loving eye at work in Columbus. (And if you are the type of person who can recognize an off-hand brutalism pun, you are in for a treat indeed.) The titular town is a bit of an architectural mecca, and the ubiquitous modernist marvels are almost characters themselves. The buildings frequently take the central framing of a shot with characters populating them as a secondary interest. Throughout the film, we return to a handful of set locations, often in a new emotional context or at a different time of day. It is a subtle technique that illustrates the manner in which our built physical environments are both spaces we inhabit, and reflections of our inner lives that change over time. It also adds a layer of visual poetry that propels the film. Of central thematic interest here is the ability of art to comfort and heal and offer new perspective. Thankfully, it’s explored in a way that doesn’t come off as banal or trite. The film also uses space to mirror the characters’ sense of confinement or restriction. Casey’s home, for example, is always shot through multiple door frames.

Screenshot from 'Columbus' (2017)

Library interior, screenshot from ‘Columbus’ (2017)

Screenshot from 'Columbus' (2017)

Architecture highlight, screenshot from ‘Columbus’ (2017)

I also appreciate the way the characters in this film all all afforded dignity and complexity, even when they are being terrible. Standout performances all around, but Richardson shines brightest. Her portrayal of a character struggling to find her way, awash in the opinions and expectations of others, is literally transcendent. She has been racking up the breakout performances, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. John Cho also delivers an understated, impactful performance that is light years removed from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Parker Posey, in addition to being brilliant and perfect and wonderful in every possible way, does a bang-up job in her supporting role.

The supporting characters all feel like real people and not cartoonish plot enablers. Kogonada withholds a lot of character information in the early scenes, opting for more subtle nods to the relationship dynamics at play in the center of this film. By the time the exposition comes in the second act, it feels natural and believable. There is so much cultural and socioeconomic subtext at work in the background that this film seems content to simply let exist without being explicitly remarked upon. A certain type of viewer might be frustrated by the slow burn and quiet unfolding of this story, but the pace feels very intentional and appropriate to me. It compliments the art exploration themes. This is a film that invites you to wander the halls and appreciate the architecture, without hammering you over the head with melodrama. The delicate character development and languid camerawork are storytelling choices that will certainly reward on future viewing.

Screenshot from 'Columbus' (2017)

Screenshot from ‘Columbus’ (2017)

Columbus was an unexpected delight, and one of my favorite films of 2017. Shout out to Kogonada for crafting a quietly confident debut that portends great things to come. Shout out to Parker Posey for being my sun and moon and stars. And shout out to advanced degrees in library science for scoring me a librarian gig, after all.

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2 comments on “First Impressions guest post: ‘Columbus’

  1. David Anderson says:

    Great review, Mr. Coleman; as good the ones provided by any of the professional critics. Beyond the points of personal identification (which spoke to me as a MLS holder who followed a roughly similar path), I found your analysis of the director’s use of setting and method of character development as insightful as any of the other many reviews I’ve read on this film. Bravo!

    • Thanks, David! I appreciate the compliment, and I’m glad you could identify with my librarian digression. I’m always interested in hearing about the paths that bring people to the field. I’m super-stoked to discover the breadth of crossover between librarians and film buffs. Cheers!

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