A few weeks ago I watched the movie “Columbus,” and I realized right away that it addresses some very profound philosophical themes, although at first I only had a few cloudy ideas. All of the conversations and architectural scenes leave something unsaid, so much so that the omission is obvious, but deciphering what exactly is omitted requires a bit of untangling (and, for me, a second viewing of the movie). In this blog post I’ll analyze the artistic devices and main themes of ”Columbus,” and explain why I like it enough to watch it twice (and even thrice, since I’ve also chosen this movie to watch and discuss in my philosophy club).
When writing about movies, I usually warn at the beginning that the post contains spoilers, and that the reader should watch the movie before they keep reading, but that’s not necessary for this post. There aren’t any plot twists in “Columbus,” and because the primary value of the movie consists in the aesthetics of its cinematography and conversations between the characters, it would be impossible to enjoy the plot by reading it. Keeping in mind that most scenes are casual conversations between two characters or static images of buildings, lawns and streets, and that the movie doesn’t involve and action, suspense, or danger at all, I was surprisingly absorbed while watching it. All of the images are aesthetically hyper-pleasing: the colors are particularly vivid, the edges and corners of buildings are pleasantly parallel, and the decoration (and soundtrack) are very minimalist (even the characters are rather photogenic). This instills in the audience the same adoration for architecture as the protagonists, and as a result it allows us to empathize with them better.
In the first scene, we see Casey smoking a cigarette outside of the library and practicing describing a church in the background - in the shape of a huge gridded brown cube - as if she were a tour guide. A white cross hangs slightly off-center on the wall, and Casey explains slowly that the architect had designed it to be “asymmetrical but balanced.” This “asymmetrical balance” is a device that reappears over the course of the movie, not only in the photography, but also in the characters. The friendship between Casey and Jin, the axle around which the entire plot turns, exhibits a certain antisymmetry. Jin is male and Casey female. Jin enters Columbus at the beginning and Casey leaves at the end. Jin hates architecture (so he says, but does he really hate it?) and Casey takes solace in it.
The relationships between the main characters also exhibit more complex symmetries. For example, Casey and Jin’s melancholy have analogous but opposite causes. Casey is alienated from her mother because she doesn’t appreciate aesthetics and has her feet perhaps too firmly on the ground. We see clues of this when she disregards Casey’s attempts to cook soup “with subtlety,” when Casey describe her mother’s addiction to “meth and shitheads,” and even when we catch a glimpse of her work in the cardboard box factory (her job suggests an interesting irony - Casey walks around town looking at buildings, but her mom sees nothing but boxes). On the other hand, Jin has lost his father in the esoteric clouds of art. He laments that academics left him no time to spend with his son, he pretends to hate architecture because his father was obsessed with it, and he complains about the indecipherable quasi-profound gobbledygook that fills the pages of his notebooks. His father is so distant that we in the audience don’t even see his face. Casey and Jin also have opposite reactions to this alienation: Casey wants to preserve the relationship with her mother at the expense of her scholarly curiosity, but Jin tries to cut all emotional ties with his father.
There’s a question that lurks behind all of the beautiful buildings and that floats wispily in the air without being explicitly posed: “what should the relationship be like between an individual and his/her environment, or an individual and art?” Modernism, an artistic and philosophical movement that does explicitly feature in the movie, addresses this question. It arose as a reaction against pragmatic, scientific, and industrial design. It rejects things that are useful but ugly (like the interior of the cardboard box factory) but it also rejects things that are superficially adorned (like the hotel that Jin stays in), and promotes instead minimalist design and aesthetic introspection. Modernism tries to make art more accessible by incorporating it into the ordinary and everyday, which is why architects like Saarinen designed buildings for public spaces like churches and banks. But in Columbus, it doesn’t seem like modernism successfully achieved its goals. Casey mentions at the beginning that most people that live there barely notice the town’s extraordinary architecture. Ironically, a steady flow of tourists constantly pass through Columbus, but tour guides entertain them with tidbits of trivia that don’t actually help them form personal connections with the art. Even Casey, for whom the buildings are almost like friends, resorts to the same tour-guide spiel with Jin until he challenges her to explain what really moves her about the bank’s design.
Columbus seems to propose a more balanced relationship between art and the individual, which doesn’t necessarily involve swallowing historical fun facts ad nauseam. The movie shows us that the life of Casey’s mom is a bit too bland and unenlightened, but it’s also harmful to bury oneself in the esoteric world of art theory like Jin’s father (this reminds me of a book called “The Glass Bead Game,” which is the topic of a different blog post). Casey and Jin together develop an ideal way to connect with architecture: they use it to temporarily alleviate their daily preoccupations and enjoy a few moments of aesthetic appreciation without losing themselves in it. For them, art is neither an eccentric obsession nor an insignificant bauble. They participate with moderation but also with intensity, without being distracted by superficial details.
“Columbus” also contains a significant them pertaining to the nature of friendship. One of the movie’s tragic ironies is that Casey and Jin, after spending only a few weeks together, form a friendship more rich that those that both characters have with their own parents. In fact, shortly after the beginning of their friendship, they are able to share a moment so intimate that even the viewers can't hear it (when Casey describes her passion for the modernist bank). Every other relationship in the movie - between Casey and her mom, Jin and his father, Jin and Eleanor, Casey and her old friend, Casey and Gabe - are plagued by indirect communication, misunderstanding and insincerity. For example, Casey’s old friend tries to tempt her out of Columbus by telling her that “the guys are so much more interesting,” but this reveals that she (despite comparing herself to her sister) doesn’t understand Casey very well, since we in the audience know after watching her for only an hour that boys aren’t what Casey finds most interesting. And even though Casey and her mother love each other, their main interactions consist mostly of taking out the trash, cooking, and eating together, and Casey’s mom even deceives her in order to meet up with a secret boyfriend. In contrast, the friendship between Casey and Jin foregoes vacuous pleasantries and they even challenge each other to communicate without false façades, resulting in a more meaningful relationship (if also more likely to broach sensitive and private topics). This reminds me of another fantastic movie called “Lost in Translation,” in which two foreigners (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannsen), an aging movie star and a recently married girl with very little in common, form a relationship based only on their sincere conversations and their excursions into Tokyo together. Both movies seem to suggest that time together, familial ties, and even common interests aren’t enough to form a meaningful friendship, but rather disinhibited sincerity.
One more thing: occasionally, a movie or book reminds me that the world is full of little aesthetic delights that one begins to ignore upon growing accustomed to them (“Lost in Translation” gives me this feeling, and so does a book called “Mr. Palomar” by Italo Calvino that I’m still reading). Reminders like these are very useful to help oneself remember that we overlook many beautiful things on a daily basis, and that one has to be attentive in order to prevent them from escaping unappreciated.back to home page