Judge Brett Cullum builds a strong case for a movie that had him crying at ceilings.
A son's journey.
My Architect languished for months without being chosen for review here at the site. And I have to admit it immediately fell to the bottom of my pile of DVDs to watch when I got it. It had "Best Movie of the Year!" blurbs from critics, but I doubted that I would find it interesting. Architecture always seemed cold to me; a removed art reserved for mathematicians and structural engineers. The thought of a movie about it really didn't inspire me.
I was wrong.
My Architect is one of the best films of any year. It's a moving story about loss, art, betrayal, and forgiveness. And yes, it features buildings that proved to me architects are as expressive as painters or novelists. This is one DVD I urge you to at least rent. The movie was an Oscar nominee, but I doubt many have heard of it beyond that.
My Architect is about Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate and only son of famed American architect Louis I. Kahn. Nathaniel's father passed away when he was only eleven, and was never around much when he was alive. Louis Kahn had three families—one by marriage, and two mistresses each with one child. Louis was a short, scarred, unkempt Jewish man who amounted to little until he turned fifty years old. Late in life he finally became a force to be reckoned with in architecture. His life was tragically cut short when he had a heart attack in a bathroom in Penn Station. Nathaniel's film captures his quest to find answers about the father he never knew, by visiting peers and family and looking at the buildings he designed in a trip that takes him across the country and around the world. Along the way he has to face some dark truths about Louis I. Kahn, but he also finds out why people loved him so much. Even more moving, each building seems to speak to him in a voice that is distinctly his father's.
It's a brilliant film. Nathaniel talks to all kinds of people about his father. Former students, co-workers, lovers, enemies, and even cab drivers all tell him bits and pieces. Together, they begin to put together the puzzle of Louis I. Kahn. My Architect is as engrossing as Citizen Kane, as facts and observations lend themselves to further mystery. The more questions Nathaniel answers, the more rich and complicated the portrait of the man becomes. And in the end, the revelations are rich and satisfying.
The images of the buildings are breathtaking. I never thought a shot of a ceiling would make me tear up, but that is exactly what happened many times in the film. Louis Kahn's work is breathtaking, beautiful, and immense. Nathaniel looks like a little boy, dwarfed by these huge columns and gravity-defying arches built by his father. There is poetry in brick and concrete, and I never knew it. Often Nathaniel includes shots showing people relating to the buildings. They move through the spaces, or stand there in rapt awe at something his father designed. More than once, it's a little boy playing in front of a structure. The film itself builds beautiful images to perfectly frame its subject. The camera work here is amazingly well done, especially when you consider the digital-based source material.
The DVD itself is a masterpiece of design. The transfer is perfect, because the source was digital to begin with. No problems with artifacts or edge enhancement (except in the older footage of Louis). Unfortunately the feature was shot for television, with a theatrical release as an afterthought. Therefore, it is presented in a full screen format. Given that it's a documentary, the stereo mix is fine for carrying music and dialogue. The score is phenomenal. The sound mix is clean and clear, except in some archival footage—which is understandable. There is a question and answer session billed as the film's only extra, but it's almost another movie in itself. It consists of Nathaniel Kahn answering questions about the film intercut with deleted footage. It's a unique approach, and serves as live commentary and a deleted scenes collection all wrapped into one package. Great idea.
And how many times have I mentioned a DVD booklet in a review? Probably only once, when I did a Criterion release, but this one deserves a nod. Inside is a booklet with gorgeous photos, quotes from Louis Kahn, and a timeline tracking every building or project he worked on. A lot of love was put into every aspect of this film, and it shows from the feature itself down to the packaging of the DVD.
Fathers live on in children; Nathaniel's father also lives on in the world through his buildings. It must be hard to have a parent who is an artist. His work is always there, in this case looming over you on many horizons. Maybe I related to this film so well because I, too, had a remote father who worked a lot and left my mother when I was twelve. Every man is a mystery, and what touched me in this film is the universal truth that so many of us never really know our parents. We spend holidays with them, and talk on special occasions, but do we really ever know everything about them? In the end what makes My Architect so profound is its universal nature. It's a deeply personal journey that we've all taken somehow. And the ultimate irony? Nathaniel never mentions whether he himself has a family. His father was a man who never mentioned his unorthodox family, and now the son has grown up either without one or without ever mentioning them in a very personal film.
My Architect is a great film. It's funny, moving, and beautiful in so many ways. There is a sadness throughout the entire film, but it's a melancholy brand that never bogs the story down. Louis I. Kahn was a man who made a mess of a personal life, but he poured a lot of himself into concrete through his buildings. The other irony of My Architect is now his son has poured his heart onto celluloid in this beautifully designed film. This is why I love documentaries. The film captures something Hollywood can never find—a universal truth to which everyone can relate. Rather than escaping into a fantasy world where everyone is anything but us, My Architect comforts you with the realization that all men and women are a mystery. Not just the fantasy ones, but even the real ones. And especially the ones that raised us; designed us—our parents.
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• Question and Answer Session with director Nathaniel Kahn (Including Deleted Footage)
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