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Friday, November 23, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Movie review
'Gregory Crewdson': Zooming in on photographer's 'dramas'

By Jeannette Catsoulis
The New York Times

"Can you look sad?" the photographer Gregory Crewdson asks a young mother as she gazes with delight on her gurgling newborn.

For Crewdson, melancholy is as integral to his vision as a fog machine and the mystical caul of twilight. Frozen in a cheap motel room or a snowbound diner, his subjects pose with beaten-down expressions, encouraging us to create our own narrative. It doesn't have a happy ending.

In "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters," the director Ben Shapiro accompanied Crewdson from 2005-09, focusing primarily on the creation of his major series "Beneath the Roses." Originally conceived as a movie, the photographs have a theatrical resonance that Shapiro sees no need to embellish.

Instead, he listens as this Brooklyn-raised photographer recalls a childhood fascination with the work of his father, a psychoanalyst who saw patients in the family basement, and a stint with the band the Speedies. Their sole hit was the prophetically titled "Let Me Take Your Photo," and it seems a long way from that bouncy ditty to the dioramas of despair that haunt this film.

With marvelous discipline, Shapiro crams a wealth of material into a tight 77 minutes. But Crewdson's unsettling ability to evoke the ineluctable void between observer and observed — and between one human being and another — is beyond the reach of words. Easier to articulate, perhaps, are the layers of need that drive his efforts, resulting in images that he views as "backdrops for a more submerged psychological drama."

That drama, the film suggests, began way back in a Brooklyn basement, where a father once listened to the secrets of strangers. Now his son, through the magic of art, is able to imagine what those secrets might have been.

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