A Gregory Crewdson photograph. If it resembles a Six Feet Under ad, its because he also did Six Feet Under ads.
  • A Gregory Crewdson photograph. If it resembles a Six Feet Under ad, it's because he also did Six Feet Under ads.

Gregory Crewdson is a very big name in photography, and he makes very big, tight pictures of American despair and decline and disorder and decay. They are not true in any literal sense, but rather they depict psychological truths crafted by Crewdson and set in landscapes where he controls all the variables, turning small towns and their denizens into his sets and actors. The lives and specifics of these people and places are not actually his inspirations; rather, the artist grew up in Brooklyn, where his father was a psychoanalyst who saw patients in the basement. The artist’s own subjects are little more than barely overheard stand-ins locked in the basement of his imagination, monumentalized distantly in someone else’s photographs.

Documentary filmmaker Ben Shapiro followed Crewdson for four years as the artist made the Hopperesque pictures of his series Beneath the Roses. It is not necessarily endearing when Crewdson shuts down the streets of small towns like an entitled royal, acting with embarrassing overfamiliarity toward the little people he’s dropped in on. It is not necessarily interesting when he controls every detail in a scene, from how the imported klieg lights interact with the sunset to his declaration that there must not be any tracks in this fresh snow—only to shrug and say he’ll just Photoshop them out when a disobedient truck leaves a huge scar of fresh tracks down the center of the photo. If Shapiro believes that Crewdson is in fact an endearing and interesting artist and story, he didn’t make the case in Brief Encounters (playing at SIFF Cinema starting Friday). Instead, the 77 minutes of the movie leave the impression that it was a poor idea to peer behind these pretty facades.