My Architect (2003, Nathaniel Kahn)

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My Architect hits close to home for me, amongst a danger zone of biases, in several respects. Start with the aesthetic one: in the last few years I’ve discovered a certain fascination with industrial architecture and its sheer “bigness” that ties in with the life’s work of Louis Kahn, so a movie about that would seem like a sure thing with me. Secondly, I lost a father with whom I’d not had a close relationship in about fifteen years, and that was a strange feeling and one echoed by director Nathaniel Kahn here, Louis’ son, who spends the film trying to come to terms with either his place in his father’s narrative or vice versa, it’s never clear which. And thirdly, documentaries that are about their own directors gripe me down to my very core. These three things gather and accumulate until I have trouble detecting my balanced opinion of this film, but one thing for sure, it’s an interesting experience.

That the film is somewhat amateurishly mounted could become a moot point since it’s essentially a personal diary documenting (not without some clumsiness) its own construction over several years, but its aspirations to a certain painfully self-aware polish derail this. The emotional essence here is both Kahn’s curiosity about his father’s inner life and his discomfort with the elder Kahn’s treatment of others. Hey, I get that too — it’s a familiar struggle and there’s some kinship with this that I can’t deny moved me. My frustration comes because there is so much opportunity to make this a more adventurous and visual and, well, universal story without it becoming essentially the personal missive of a private journal entry that it finally is. But it’s so close to being as special as Kahn wanted it to be, it is in fits and starts, and that’s a little maddening.

It’s perhaps an empty criticism to complain that someone made a different movie than you would make or that you think ought to have been made, but we’re already here, so: I wish that either Kahn had left the actual directing of the film to someone else — he could keep the central story of being unsatisfied with his father’s anticlimactic end in Penn Station and setting out to connect with him through his work — or had made it strictly a film about his father rather than himself. That doesn’t mean the latter prospective movie would need to be catholic or fawning in its treatment of Louis Kahn; it could easily examine his personal failings as a mysterious contrast to his achievements. But I continue to believe that the subject of a documentary film should not direct that documentary, and whatever he may think, Kahn and not his wayward, internationally famed father Louis is the subject of this film.

How do we know this? Well, where to begin? There are passages of sentimental indulgence that seem to invite Ed Woodian accusations of wide-eyed self-adoration, like the moment — not kidding — when Nathaniel roller-skates aroud the courtyard of his dad’s Salk Institute to the tune of “Long May You Run.” Or the elderly family members chiding and cooing at Kahn, as though it were all the fruition of some old baby picture. Or the bizarre moment when Kahn stands at the foot of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and turns his handheld to amuse (!?) us with the sight of a man’s prayers? But generally, this is a “me, me, me” form of expression — it almost makes you blush to see someone putting out so much of himself, and yet there’s something admirable about that. He inevitably comes across as being a bit self-obsessed, especially when he’s meant to be discussing things that are slightly more out of his orbit than he suggests, but I kind of get it; he betrays a certain fearlessness by his placing of himself under the microscope. But we can’t shake the knowledge that he still wholly controls what we’re seeing.

In the wake of the film’s release in 2003 came complaints that it oversold Louis Kahn’s contributions to architecture, a frequent argument (somewhat hinted at in the body of the movie) being that his buildings were not practical or applicable to modern use. But one of the things that Nathaniel’s shooting of his own footage does reveal is a kinship with his father’s legacy laid out by an eye for the beauty he saw in these structures, or at least wanted to see. Whereas many critics praised My Architect for being about “more than” architecture, the truth is that those sequences involving Kahn’s work shine through the limitations of late ’90s DV to appear truly majestic and cinematic — they are what’s best about the movie, and I wish that it had found the truth that lies simply in the work itself rather than being so anxious to look beyond it. Toward the end, Shamsul Wares seems aware of this problem as he chides Nathaniel for giving only ten minutes of screen time away to his father’s improbably glorious Bangladesh capital building. When the director captures the haunting connection to the past — to one’s own past, in a sense — that he’s striving for, it’s magic, and it’s something he nails in examining the art as a tangible relation of the artist’s condition. It sounds overly analytical, but in practice there’s a cutting truth to the approach.

Those moments of tempered respect and awe render trite the body of deconstruction here: the constant narration, the inexplicable footage of Nathaniel Kahn in the editing room working on the very film we’re watching (sure, Orson Welles did it, but come on), the pestering of relatives to get to “know” the erstwhile promiscuous archtect who essentially had at least three families and abandoned them all when convenient, the especially problematic and contrived badgering of Kahn’s own mother, and the reaching back to the “Son’s Journey” of the subtitle. It all seems too literal in a sense, and the rationality of it dances around the truth for which Kahn is plundering. You can talk and talk and talk over something and never actually comprehend or explain it. But I cannot dispute the probably therapeutic nature of the creative process here, the loss and pain being coped with, nor the fact that the sense of time, place and memory is sometimes unexpectedly stirring. But the sensory exploration of a man and his work and his personal problems should’ve been allowed to attain a life of its own without being constantly talked over. It could soar even without shedding all of its tangents, but it’s in the end too narcisstic. Yet for a first-time feature director, it wraps its arms nearly all the way around complex enough emotions that one can’t deny it’s an impressive effort.

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