"Columbus" and Discovery in the Modern World

Who is Kogonada? He is a renowned video essayist who just released his acclaimed feature debut, Columbus, starring John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey and Rory Culkin. But for me, Kogonada is more than that; he's a person who has greatly influenced my thinking about and passion for cinema.

Kogonada was my professor, advisor and friend when I was a college student in the early 2000s. I took new media and film classes from him. I asked him to write recommendation letters when I applied to graduate school. We had conversations about our mutual love of Terrence Malick, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (particularly its impeccable sound design), and the beauty of "the everyday." He introduced me to Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Filmas well as Ozu and Linklater and Jarmusch, filmmakers who have since become some of my favorites. He also introduced me to Neil Postman and sparked in me a love of media criticism that has informed my writing ever since. Kogonada (though he didn’t go by “Kogonada” back then) was a significant influence on me at a formative time in my life, and so it is no surprise that when I saw Columbus this weekend, I absolutely loved it.

It’s a weird thing to watch a film that resonates so profoundly with you in part because its maker is someone whose way of watching films so personally and profoundly shaped your own, going back 15 years. But seeing and loving art well is an essential prerequisite to making art well. And Kogonada proves that with Columbus.

Early on in Columbus, the protagonist Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is having a decidedly Linklater-esque philosophical conversation with a fellow librarian (Rory Culkin). Culkin’s character is talking about the difference between attention and interest, arguing that the real problem in our world today is one of interest apathy rather than short attention spans. He ponders: “Are we no longer interested in everyday life?”

It’s a question that both confronts the audience and motivates Columbus, a film which actually is quite interested in everyday life.

Discovery and Recovery

Columbus is the name of a small town in Indiana with an outsized architectural influence. Nicknamed “Athens on the Prairie,” the town of 40,000 was recently ranked 6th by the The American Institute of Architects on a list of most important U.S. cities for architectural innovation and design (right behind New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). Columbus is especially rich in modernist buildings, including structures designed by the likes of I.M. Pei, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier and Harry Weese.

Did you know this about Columbus, Indiana? Neither did I. The “wow!” sense of newness that infuses Columbus thus reveals a double meaning to its name, hearkening back its its famous explorer namesake. This is a film about discovery.

But Columbus is not crossing oceans to discover uncharted worlds. It posits a mode of discovery that is more like re-covery: seeing the world right in front of you in a new way, with new eyes. “You grow up around something and it feels like nothing,” one character says in the film, speaking for all of us who grew up in small towns, wanting to escape, only to appreciate later the virtues and wonders we had failed to see.

Columbus is a narrative film but feels almost like a documentary about nature and architecture. Its sense of discovery is manifest in its loving and deliberate gaze, focusing as much on characters as the spaces they move through, the things they interact with (clothes, chairs, cars, mirrors, red steaming tea kettles) and the everyday chores that mark their lives (fluffing pillows, taking out the trash, slicing tomatoes for a sandwich, showering). Koganada and cinematographer Elisha Christian take special notice of the background ambience of life: furniture, lamps, trinkets, trees, traffic, train horns. The mise-en-scène in almost every frame is as detailed and deliberate as that of Wes Anderson, without the artifice and overemphasis on color palette.

And then there is the architecture. It’s not everyday that films are reviewed by the L.A. Times architecture critic, but Columbus is a film that brings the beauty of buildings alive like few I’ve ever seen. The film opens on the First Christian Church, designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in 1942. Kogonada’s camera lingers on the “asymmetrical but still balanced” cross that dons the church’s front facade, a visual motif that will show up in subtle ways throughout the film. Later we see the famous North Christian Church, designed by Saarinen’s son Eero, the modernist master who also designed the St. Louis Arch. Other structures prominently featured as locations in the film include Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, James Stewart Polshek’s Quinco Mental Health Center, Deborah Berke’s Irwin Union Bank, Myron Goldsmith’s Republic newspaper plant and offices, and Jean Muller’s Second Street Bridge, which reminded me of hands in a prayerful posture.

But architecture isn’t the only artform Kogonada is celebrating in Columbus. The film is very much a celebration of cinema itself, inspired by and constantly referencing many of Koganada's favorite filmmakers.

Senses and Cinema

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy bear the most direct influence on Columbus, at least in terms of the plot. Like Coppola’s 2003 film (which came out while I was taking a class from Kogonada), Columbus follows an older man, Jin (Cho), and a younger woman, Casey (Richardson), who are both “lost” in some way and forge an unlikely and ultimately ephemeral connection that leaves both of them changed. Like Linklater’s films, Columbus is a largely “walking and talking” narrative, in which two characters explore a city while talking art, philosophy, religion and relationships.

Another filmmaker whose mark I recognize in Columbus is Jim Jarmusch. The film’s quietness and pacing, as well as its smoking-and-talking existentialism (see Coffee and Cigarettes), cross-cultural relationships and affinity for the simple pleasures of place (see Paterson), all reflect a Jarmuschian sensibility.

I also see a bit of early David Gordon Green (particularly George Washington and All the Real Girls) in Columbus, both in the emphasis on small town life, the impermanence of human connection and the pain of growing up and navigating the sins and burdens we inherit from our parents. I remember watching All the Real Girls in one of Kogonada’s film classes and talking about Ozu and cinema’s ability to capture the beauty of everyday life and the pain of impermanence.

Speaking of Ozu, he also looms large in the film. Kogonada’s interest in Ozu’s passageways is evident throughout Columbus, which lingers often in passageways of various kinds: hallways of school, hospitals and hotels; library aisles and alleyways. Ozu’s tendency to patiently record spaces from a static point of view, letting domestic action (or just stillness) unfold within them, is ubiquitous in Columbus, which dwells often in the quiet spaces of domestic solitude.

The way Kogonada’s camera explores architectural spaces, and particularly the way they interact with nature, brings to mind post-Tree of Life Terrence Malick. Just as in Malick’s recent films, where modernist structures function as spatial lenses and mirrors to mediate between ordered domesticity and the wilds of nature, the modernist spaces of Columbus help us see and notice the contrast between what is given and what is possible, between nature and culture, the City of God and the City of Man (to use Augustine's binary). Arising as it did in a time of human history where religion waned and meaning was elusive, modernist architecture struggles after the spiritual within the constraints of secularism. In this liminal search, modernism finds itself a natural cousin to the genre of “sacred space” (hence the Saarinen churches which are prominent in the film). There is a zen-like calm and a “healing power” to these structures, and in the film they are both the setting and a catalyst for healing.

How does modernist architecture catalyze healing? In the same way all great art does. It reminds us of the possibility of order in a world of chaos. It re-sensitizes us in a world where we are increasingly distracted and detached (via technology, consumerism, etc.) from awareness and presence in any given place.

When I knew him, Kogonada talked a lot about Postman and cited Technopoly often. He worried about the ways technology might be making us dumber and number; numb to the beauty which is everywhere around us if only we have eyes to see and interest (or attention-spans?) to look.

This techno-skepticism is on display in Columbus. Richardson’s character proudly flaunts her antiquated flip phone, which she calls a “dumb phone” because it has no Internet access. She prefers spending time at libraries and trying to remember facts rather than resorting to Google. Happier and more alive to the beauty of her hometown (refreshingly unburdened by the wanderlust and status envy stoked by the “connected” life), she provides a compelling model for what joyful resistance might look like in a technopolized world.

Indeed, at a time when more and more are noting the disturbing psychological and de-humanizing effects of technology, Columbus offers a glimpse into a world we can have if we want it: a world of serendipitous discovery rather than utilitarian Google search; quiet contentment rather than clattering consumerism; sensory encounter rather than disembodied distraction; a world where the physical nouns (people, places and things) in front of us are more compelling and comforting to us than the digital abstractions we might find on the other side of a hyperlink.

Cinema is often framed as escapism, and indeed it has that quality. We watch movies to visit far away places and times, and to understand the experiences of others. But cinema at its best, and certainly Columbus fits that bill, doesn’t stop at escapism; it helps us return well to reality, with new eyes to see and love the world beyond the screen.