Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Heartfelt Journey

At the great blog, Film For The Soul, Ibetolis has been letting a number of enthusiastic film bloggers write reviews of films of this decade in a series called Counting Down The Zeroes. I've been honored to have written reviews of films from the first four years of the decade to date and I look forward to contributing a post over the next few months for the rest of the decade's films (my current post on 2004's The Bourne Supremacy can be read here).

Every once in a while, I see a film I wish I had reviewed and for 2003, it is the wonderful documentary My Architect. I recall the critical praise for this film upon its release, but only saw it for the first time a few nights ago on DVD. Below is my review of this film, easily one of the finest of that year.

My Architect is the story of Nahaniel Kahn's search for the identity of his father, the celebrated architect Louis Kahn, who died some twenty-five years prior to the beginning of this project. In the initial scene, Nathaniel reads the New York Times obituary that mentions only his stepmother and stepsister as remaining family. At this moment, the son realizes that his father kept Nathaniel's identity a secret.

Nathaniel feels a need to discover who his father was; this takes him on a journey to several parts of the United States as well as India and Bangladesh to see his best known works up close and talk to other architects who worked with and knew him. The iconic Philip Johnson tells Nathaniel that his father was the "most-loved" architect of his time, yet Nathaniel soon learns that his father was not a very outgoing, friendly man, at least to most of his colleagues. He was a workaholic and would sometimes keep his associates in his office working until very late in the evening or early in the morning.

His commitment to his work allowed him to craft many revolutionary designs, yet most of them were never built. One fascinating interview with a city planner of Philadelphia, where Kahn resided for many years, tells of a personal conflict, as the planner dismissed his ideas as too utopian and not functional. It's a telling moment in the film as this designer, now in his 70s, is still angry at Kahn for his refusal to compromise. We get the idea that Kahn was probably like this with many others in the profession.

His drive at work meant he did not spend that much time with his family, as Nathaniel tells of the weekly visits that were all too brief. But Kahn's family was not just Nathaniel and his mother; it turns out that Kahn fathered three children - two girls and one boy - with three different women. One of his colleagues, who quit, given the grueling schedule Kahn subjected him to, wonders how Kahn didn't have a nervous breakdown juggling his professional life with the lives of his multiple families.

Nathaniel talks with his stepsisters as well as one of his stepmothers and his own mother to learn about their feelings of Louis (the architect's wife had died before the film was begun) and their stories are quite touching. None of the family hates Louis for cheating on his wife and his stepsisters tell Nathaniel that they are a family because they choose to be, not necessarily because of some blood relations. While this reassures the young Kahn, he is bewildered by his mother's devotion to her lover's memory, as she is now a woman in her 80s who chooses to live her life alone instead of with another man. It's this conflict that makes Louis Kahn's identity so dificult to grasp for his son.

Along the way, we are given a tour of some of Kahn's most renowned buildings, most of which are of a heroic nature, especially his work on the Parliament building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This magnificent project, which is one of the most awe-inspring tributes to man and goverment, took more than 20 years to complete and was not seen in its finished state by the architect who died in 1974. Nathaniel interviews local workers who remember his father; they are clearly proud of this building, which they consider the most beautiful in their country. They are even more amazed that an American architect would work on such a massive project for one of the poorest countries in the world.

Above all, the younger Kahn presents his father as an artist, who treasured the discpline of his craft far more than financial rewards. Kanh, who died of a heart attack just after returning from a trip to India at the age of 73, had amassed a debt of one-half million dollars at that time. That sad news was only part of the tragedy though, as authorities could not identify him as he had scratched out the address on his passport. He was taken to the city morgue in New York City where he remained for two days before things were straightened out. The question of why he altered his passport is one that puzzles his son to this very day.

The conflict in Louis Kahn's life as presented by his son in this film is a subject that captures us from the first frames and takes us on a remarkable journey. This is one of the finest documentaries I've seen in years, thanks to the personal involvement of a son who only wanted to better understand his father. Never reverent or preachy in its tone, this is a moving story that could only be told by Nathaniel Kahn; it is highly recommended.