The photographer Gregory Crewdson has been described as "Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates." Like Rockwell, Crewdson captures small and ordinary moments of American life. Rockwell worked in Stockbridge, Mass.; Crewdson favors nearby Pittsfield. But where Rockwell's paintings feel cheerful and warm, Crewdson's photos exude mystery, melancholy and alienation: a married couple, half-undressed, in opposite corners of the bedroom. A mother and daughter, both caught in sleeplessness. An old man, bathrobe falling open, trapped listless in the glow of a TV screen. Though his images don't go totally Hitchcockian—for one photo, he models the bathroom after Psycho, but you won't find blood or expressions of terror—there's an eerie desolation that jibes with Hitchcock's evocation of anxiety and discomfort.
Ben Shapiro's documentary immerses the viewer in this strange and particular world. Crewdson is a self-described micro-manager: In one memorable moment, he asks a demolition crew to gouge a careful hole in a house before completely demolishing it. "That is fucking cool," he says, flashing a thumbs-up at the truck's operator. With his "preoccupation with making things perfect," Crewdson's shoots are elaborately and meticulously staged affairs that can cost as much as an independent film (it helps that prints sell for up to $125,000). While setting up dozens of lights and sawing down parking signs for a street scene, Crewdson meets a group of teenagers. "This is all for one picture?" one asks, in utter disbelief.
But Shapiro exhibits neither scorn nor sycophantism, showing both Crewdson's obsessive eye for detail and his affable attitude on the set. Shapiro largely eschews biographical detail—we learn Crewdson's father was a psychoanalyst who worked out of the family's basement, and that young Crewdson used to put his ear to the floorboards—and focuses instead on the drama of the shoot. There's a transfixing sequence during which Crewdson photographs a mother and her newborn, who delays the shoot by crying for hours, and another during which Crewdson and crew cross their fingers for a snowstorm. As obsessively staged as Crewdson's tableaux may be, it's these moments that remind us of the uncertainty—and resulting wonder—of artistic creation.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.