February 14, 2017

The Calm Honesty of Collegetown

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Parties spilling out into Collegetown streets during O-week, bags left on tri-Delt’s walkway during rush, Olin glowing across the Arts Quad at night — Hugo Genes’ ‘10 film Collegetown is full of eerily familiar sights.

The college in Collegetown is unnamed, but so much of it is filmed at Cornell that it seems like it could be about your classmates. The film critiques high-price universities and the students’ narrow focus on getting drunk and rich. The film is focused on the message – the characters are not explored very deeply – but you see the moments in their lives relating to their  financial situations, both in terms of career and college costs. Since you don’t get to know the characters well, the film’s most relatable aspects are small interactions. Phone calls with your mom, assuring her everything is fine, even though she knows better. Sitting in the financial aid office, unable to react when the officer talks you out of the room. Overwhelming information sessions with hundreds of people there who have spent their whole lives preparing to compete for the same opportunity you want.

Aside from familiar scenes of college life, the film’s strength also lies in the cinematography. Soft focus and shallow depth of field are overwhelmingly popular in emotional and personal independent films like Collegetown, but only because it’s pleasant. It differentiates the genre from corporate cinema and feels more intimate. It’s the aesthetic we chased after in my high school film classes and clubs, and Collegetown caught it. The long, scenic montages that split up sketches and give well-needed geographic context can be a little long, but well composed and necessary. A lot of the morning-after shots of Collegetown houses are stills, though, which is a little jarring.

Throughout Collegetown, nothing is ever peaceful. There’s always something to do, someone to impress or lingering anxiety and turbulence. There’s one character who seems to be resisting the lure of banking — despite a childhood dream to follow in his father’s banking footsteps — and even his indie guitar fingerpicking leaves a lingering feeling of imbalance in the frat house.

The editing is remarkably well done, carrying a lot of the mood of the film. It presents the stop-then-go nature of college, shows what happens as students use their devices and puts together multiple stories into one narrative. Particularly interesting is the use of editing to show what happens in texts, emails and on laptop screens. Since so much of our lives and connections are propagated through electronics, it is critical that they are shown in film. Filmmakers are working hard to figure out how to present electronic communication well in film and Collegetown explores some outstanding options.

The film forgoes exploring the life of any particular character — it is very topical. However, the narratives grow parallel to each other and eventually come together in a smashed up interview in a Manhattan high-rise, which goes terribly for everyone involved. Jumping between so many topical characters and themes doesn’t give you a chance to get too attached, so the movie doesn’t really reach into profound emotions. In addition to following several students, Collegetown throws in a few backstories and several children trying to explain the workings of Wall Street. The ideas are interesting, but too many to flow together naturally.

One of the exciting points of Collegetown is what director and his team got right. Many films excel in exploring relatable emotions and aspirations, but Collegetown shines more in representing day-to-day occurrences. It’s very much a critique of the life we’re living, although it’s more reflective than condemning. Collegetown isn’t the movie of the year, but it is relevant and valuable to Cornell students.

Collegetown is showing at Cornell Cinema, for free, on February 15 at 5:00 p.m., featuring a discussion with director Hugo Genes ’10.


Katie Sims is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].