Movie review: Columbus (2017)

Columbus is a soft-spoken movie full of serendipitous meetings against the backdrop of Columbus, Indiana.

This small-size midwestern town is known for its architecture. Columbus is the home of Cummins, a large engine manufacturer with an oversized footprint on the town. Cummins executive J. Irwin Miller along with the Cummins Foundation was behind the boom in modernist architecture in Columbus that went on for decades. The movie highlights many of the architectural treasures in Columbus as the storyline unfolds—the Irwin house, First Christian Church, the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, the Irwin Conference Centre, Mill Race Park, the Miller House, the Republic Newspaper Building, Clifty Creek Elementary School, and Columbus City Hall.

The storyline? A world-renown architect is in town for a talk. He and his assistant are at the famous Miller House when he falls ill and is hospitalized. (The Miller House makes appearance throughout the movie. As an aside: the house is well worth a tour.)

The architect’s son, Jin, flies from Korea to be present for…his father’s recovery? His death? As the movie progresses we learn about the strained relationship (or lack of one) with his father, expectations in Korean society about family, and Jin’s own feelings about the situation.

Meanwhile, Cassey, a resident of Columbus and architecture aficionado, encounters Jin. The two of them start a friendship that quickly delves into deep topics. Initially she takes Jin to various architectural sites. Discussions move from superficial talk about the buildings to her feelings behind them to her life.

The discussions with Jin force Cassey to confront her life: she has stayed in Columbus (and told herself she was fine with that) as friends and classmates went off to college. Why, if she has an interest in architecture and was clearly bright, did she not go to college to study architecture? Previously another scholar of architecture offered to take Cassey under her wing. But Cassey demurred.

The discussions with Cassey force Jin to admit to his feelings surrounding Korean societal expectations and his relationship with his father. He is in limbo in Columbus. He is staying in the room his father had at the Irwin House. The movie shows shots of him in the house and views of the gardens. (You can also tour the Irwin House, and the gardens are open to the public during certain hours.)

In the end, there are no clean resolutions. Cassey does move on with her life, clearly scared to leave the town and mother she loves. Jin is stuck, moving from the rooms of the Irwin House to a house he can rent by the month. He is waiting for his father to die or to live. Like real life, the movie doesn’t show us how things end.

Jumping into the sofa pit

Columbus, Indiana. Probably not a place that comes to mind when you think architecture. Yet the American Institute of Architects named Columbus as the sixth most architecturally important city in the US.

There I was, in the middle of a tour, wandering through the Miller House, the mid-century home of the former CEO of Cummins, the largest employer in Columbus, Indiana. Irwin Miller was also the philanthropist responsible for architectural design throughout Columbus, the very architectural design that landed Columbus in the sixth spot.

The Millers raised five children in this house, including one oops—a child that announced it was coming after the house was designed. The house is laid out as compartments, with a section for the children’s rooms, a section for guests, and a section for the parents. The center is a large communal area with a rectangular sofa recessed in the floor.

It didn’t seem like a house for children. But stories started to emerge. The floors were a beautiful travertine and terrazzo, preserved by having tour guests walk only on carpeted runners. Yet children being children, the floors weren’t always treated with this respect. The children roller skated on it. Gasp.

And before the house was given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for preservation, a painting hung by the dining table, a painting that the children used to bounce balls off of. A painting of water lilies. Yes, those water lilies. By Monet. A painting that later fetched nearly $81 million at an auction. They bounced balls off of it. Double gasp.

My favorite tale about the children’s escapades involved the sunken sofa. The sofa graced the large communal room, with a plethora of pillows on the cushions. After strategically moving the pillows from the sofa cushions to the floor in the center of the rectangular sofa, the children would take a running leap from a far corner of the large communal room. Flying through the air, they landed on the soft pile of pillows. Jumping into the sofa pit must have been the perfect remedy for a house with no wooden banister to slide down.

And I wished I could take a stab at it. Of course, being Amy, I would have to add sound effects. The obligatory “wheeee” as I flew through the air. And landed on the pillows.