Make no mistake about it, Judge Bill Gibron believes himself brilliant. Still, he's not quite as deluded as the subject of this sensational documentary.
Architecture and (Human) Immorality
Can someone be a self-recognized savant? Doesn't ability and acumen have to be judged by others, not just based on their own biased opinion of themselves? That's the premise and the predicament at the center of the delightfully off-kilter documentary My Father, The Genius. Lucia Small, middle daughter of self-proclaimed architectural whiz Glen Howard Small, was asked by her dad to make a movie of his life. After all, he believed his accomplishments were overlooked by a society stuck in arcane ideas of building structure and an industry overloaded with politics and poor sport back-biting. Hoping to illuminate the world as to his unusual theories and mystifying proposals (including something very sci-fi '60s called a "biomorphic biospehere"), Small gave his child unlimited access. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the decades of neglect his family felt at his hands, especially his three troubled daughters. Now pushing thirty, these women want a chance to air their grievances in front of the camera, painting a much more disturbing portrait of a disconnected, disinterested, and distant parent. While occasionally hilarious and frequently fascinating, what we end up with is a therapist's prospectus engineered out of suppressed memories, bitter resentment, and one man's life lost in the wilderness of his own egotistical aura.
There's no doubt about it: Glen Howard Small thinks he's a genius. Give him a platform and he'll prove it to you. He even has decades of models and drawings to verify it. Of course, he also fancies himself a rebel with a construction cause and one of the more intriguing elements in this movie is the way in which this architect relishes his outsider stance. Though he complains constantly about how his rejection has cost humanity his sensational designs (and himself a lucrative career), you can see that he enjoys being the revolutionary. It was the reason that his family fell apart. The first section of My Father, The Genius shows that Small was a creative, if conservative, type who was simply looking for an excuse to break free. The '60s, with all its free love and free thinking, became the perfect pretext. As his first wife explains it, one day he turned from being a business-minded go-getter into a kind of half-baked hippie. Definitely indulging in the more erotic and narcotic aspects of the era, divorce became the answer to Phase One of Small's lack of recognition. Without a spouse and three nagging kids tied around his neck, he was free to explore the outer parameters of the architectural field.
After a few more heartfelt reflections from his abandoned clan, we pick up Small's story at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. More of a think tank than an actual school, this drastic departure in the teaching of structural design is mythologized by the people who participated in it, including Small and several of his colleagues/students. When we get to see their work, we instantly understand why. This isn't some cold classroom with a teacher lecturing about support densities and load-bearing basics. This is a living, breathing community of creators—artists working in brick and mortar (or, in most cases, canvas and steel) versus paints and clay. Small tried to instill a sense of wonder into his contemporaries, a notion that with some deep thinking and envelope pushing, they could actually make the planet a better place and a better place to live. Of course, this ends up being his downfall, as other sectors of the school see the possible profitability in conforming to the needs of their cash-heavy clients. Before long, the '80s "Greed is Good" mantra destroys Small's utilitarian utopia and, two decades later, he is barely able to make ends meet.
But this is not a sob story. Lucia doesn't lament her father's fiscal fate (there's even a tenuous stay with her very bitter older sister). Instead, she illustrates how most of his problems are strictly his own flibbertigibbet fault. While building a home for an affluent couple, Small shows his absolutism. In many ways, you take his designs in total or you leave them and find yourself a shotgun shack to squirrel away in. Even when he eventually concedes, he curses and complains like a sailor unable to find some shore-leave sugar. It's the same thing in his personal life. He recognizes what a rotten father he's been, but his professional legacy is far more important than his personal one. When confronted with angry offspring, exasperated exes and a bevy of bland one-night stands, Small simply shrugs his shoulders and chalks it all up to "being a man." It's an interesting dynamic that sits at the core of My Father, The Genius's narrative foundation. Nothing is ever his fault solely. It's a combination of politics, personality, and his unsung potential. With a new revelation and reality around every corner, with an openness that's both his draw and his undoing, Glen Howard Small makes for a very enigmatic subject. Thankfully, he picked the child best ready to meet him halfway. That's why this documentary is so engaging. That's why we almost buy Small's self-proclaimed specialness.
Presented in a 1.33:1 full-frame image that's vibrant and very colorful, My Father, The Genius makes a successful transfer over to DVD. The contrasts are crisp, and the only visual issues result from Lucia's hand-held camerawork. As for the sound situation, we are offered a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that's professional and upfront, allowing all the conversations and voiceover narration to be heard in crystal clarity. As for added content, we are treated to a nice filmmaker/father interview segment in which both Lucia and Glen Howard share insights into the production, as well as the end result. Next up, there's a short film from the '70s which deals with the mythic "biomorphic biosphere." Even with Small's added commentary, it remains an elusive concept. Several noted architects chime in with their thoughts about our hero and a narrated slide show and Sundance Channel "Aftereffect" featurette round out this aspect of the Small story. Oddly enough, a sequel is in the works. We are given a trailer/preview of the film in progress, a new story that follows Small as he enters the weird world of "international" design. To say more would ruin the reveal.
In many ways, Glen Howard Small doesn't deserve recognition. He may mandate it, and others can feel the need to heap it upon him, but his is a personality so perplexing and puffed up that he'll always consider himself an unappreciated icon no matter what. My Father, the Genius does a lot to deflate this feeling. Yet it also adds fuels to the already raging fire of fabulousness in its subject's skilled head. As in all great documentaries, it proves that truth trumps fiction almost every time.
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