Rebuilding My Father’s House: An Architect’s Son Pays Respects

Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect: A Son’s Journey , produced by Susan Rose Behr and Mr. Kahn, towers on the screen, both literally and figuratively. It’s the most insightful and informative nonfiction film that I’ve seen, at least since Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader back in February, and possibly within my moviegoing memory. Nonfiction cinema has taken enormous strides in recent years, and yet it’s still difficult to convince even a discerning paying customer to see the most heralded documentaries on the big screen. For gripping drama and suspense, there are few fictional movies that can hold a candle to Mr. Kahn’s odyssey through time and space. Film Forum has been showing My Architect to enthusiastic audiences since Nov. 12, and it will continue its run until Nov. 25. It’s well worth seeing for both the art and the life of one of architecture’s modern giants.

Louis Kahn (1901-1974) died of a heart attack in the men’s room of Pennsylvania Station on the night of March 17, 1974. His body was unclaimed at first because he had crossed out his home address on his passport. He was just returning from a commissioned assignment in India when he was stricken. His widow, Esther Israeli Kahn, and his daughter Sue Ann were the only two survivors listed in his obituary and, officially, the only family members to attend his funeral. But unofficially, four others were present at Kahn’s graveside; Anne Tyng, Harriet Pattison and their respective children, Alexandra and Nathaniel, both fathered out of wedlock by the man who many of his friends described as a “nomad”-a truly wandering Jew.

All three of Kahn’s families lived within a three-mile radius in a Philadelphia suburb. They were detached from each other but never entirely unaware of each other’s existence. To a certain degree, Kahn’s adulterous adventures were the outgrowth of an all-consuming obsession with his work-both Ms. Tyng and Ms. Pattison were valued collaborators on his quest for a more classical, more monumental and ultimately more mystical vision of architecture, in opposition to the glassy transparency of the modern school. Whereas Ms. Tyng was a brilliant designer, Ms. Pattison was an accomplished landscape architect.

Still, at first glance, Kahn’s three separate households within the same city would seem to be the stuff of lurid melodrama and catchpenny journalism. But in searching for the father who made him the illegitimate-though never completely abandoned-son of a disgraced single mother, the filmmaker (Nathanial Kahn) notably rises above his personal grievance to elevate his father to the architectural pantheon of visionary greatness, while also acknowledging his father’s better-known and more productive colleagues.

Along the way, we learn that Louis Kahn was born in 1901 on the Estonian island of Osel. He immigrated at the age of 4 with his family to Philadelphia, where they lived in melting-pot poverty through the early years of the 20th century. Displaying signs of talent in art and music at a young age, Kahn made money teaching drawing and playing the piano in silent-movie houses. Always a gifted and industrious student, he won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the celebrated Paul Cret in the Beaux-Arts tradition, graduating in 1924 with a degree in architecture.

Through the 1930’s and 1940’s, Kahn struggled to make a living and a name for himself. As a Jew, he was at a disadvantage working in a city and a chosen profession dominated by a subtly discriminatory Protestant establishment. In 1947, he accepted an appointment as a professor of architecture at Yale University, and later moved in the same capacity to the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained until the end of his life. In the process of teaching, Kahn influenced a generation of architects, from whose ranks he drew a steady stream of dedicated assistants for his architectural ventures.

The great epiphany on his architectural Road to Damascus as the spiritual prophet of brick and stone came on a trip through Greece, Rome and Egypt; ironically, he was inspired by the majestic ruins of the past to chart the course of a new architecture with a more exalted place in the universe. But his vision was largely stillborn over years of failed and decommissioned projects. He is represented today by a small handful of completed masterworks, but his illegitimate son has employed the missionary apparatus of cinema to make a few lasting landmarks serve as an overwhelming evocation of his father’s often wounded and often thwarted genius.

In some ways, Kahn was his own worst enemy with his endless revisions and intransigent perfectionism, which proved to be financially impractical time and again. We learn all this from many people, the high and the humble alike, who knew and worked with and even against him. Mr. Kahn the younger respects all his sources of information. He is fortunate to have many images of his father to show us graphically a man who walked on the earth for a time and then left. From the earliest family photos included in another documentary sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, we see mostly banal images of an unprepossessing middle-aged man walking in the street and sitting at his desk. But in the context of the film, he seems stirringly alive and alert, largely because of the awe and affection with which he is regarded by a son who barely knew him.

We thus get to know this strange man, while his son stays discreetly but observantly in the background. I was especially impressed by the filmmaker’s good taste in never wearing his heart on his sleeve-particularly in a breathtakingly daring sequence with his now elderly mother, who stubbornly refuses to condemn his father (she insists that Kahn promised before death to leave his wife, and said that he’d live with them openly before all the world). The telltale crossed-out address on his passport validated her story, she argued. There is so much universal subtext here that Mr. Kahn prudently stages much of it from outside the house in which this climactic conversation takes place.

But the film then soars when it reaches Bangladesh for his father’s final gift to humanity in the poorest country in the world. Kahn once wanted to remake Philadelphia, and failed. But here, an American Jew in a Muslim country inspired democracy by the sheer spiritual grandeur of his architectural achievement. It has to be seen to be believed-as does the entire film, in which so much redemptive love has been gracefully and eloquently expressed.

Battleships for the Boys

Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: Far Side of the World , from a screenplay by Mr. Weir and John Collee, based on the novels by Patrick O’Brian, has been described ominously by no less an authority than its star, Russell Crowe, as “a $135 million art film.” I say “ominously” because this “realistic” adaptation of two of Mr. O’Brian’s 21 novels will have to do land-office business in this overcrowded Christmas season to satisfy its backers sufficiently for them to designate it as the opening salvo of a franchise with many sequels and toy-ship tie-ins. Under these nerve-racking circumstances, and in the face of a barrage of rave reviews, I’m almost embarrassed to report that I found this two-hour nautical excursion almost totally uninteresting; its dialogue inaudible against the “realistically” roaring surf, and its male bonding remarkably fatuous and heavy-handed in the context of a teary-eyed, Tory-tinged tribute to king and country circa 1805.

It may be that I’m reacting against the self-congratulatory tone taken by Messrs. Crowe and Weir for their alleged avoidance of the dreaded “curse of Hollywood,” by virtuously excluding women from the film and acknowledging it as a purely male experience. But by never going ashore for what passed as civilization in 1805-even though Mr. O’Brian’s novels often bring up such lubberly subjects as women and business and political infighting in the Admiralty-Mr. Weir has stayed manfully at sea, albeit in the huge Mexican water tank used for the making of Titanic several years ago.

To put it plainly, two ships playing tag across the seas is no longer my idea of whoopee, especially at a time when grown-ups are popping up all over the screen with uncensored stories of the eternal affinities and all their variations. Hence it’s only on a scale of trivial pursuits that I find myself moderately concerned with Captain Jack Aubrey chasing the French ship Acheron (in Mr. O’Brian’s novels, it was an American ship from the War of 1812). Mr. Weir’s decision to change Captain Aubrey’s enemy from American to French seems curious-a slavish attempt to pander to the current Francophobia of the Bush administration, perhaps? If so, not a very challenging choice for a filmmaker on the peripheries of the Hollywood mainstream.

Over the years, Mr. Weir has acquired a deserved reputation for tackling difficult subjects, though despite such praiseworthy efforts as The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Witness (1985) and The Truman Show (1998), I have felt just as often that his reach has exceeded his grasp. But my complaint about Master and Commander is that it doesn’t reach nearly far enough-and therefore, it’s about remarkably little. To make matters worse, its excessive attention to the worshipful, pretty little cabin boys is calculated to make the film more seductive to what has been described as the “14-to-24 male quadrant” that dominates so much of Hollywood’s thinking these days.

This is not to say that Mr. Crowe and Paul Bettany as his sidekick, the pre-Darwinian Dr. Maturin, are any slouches in the acting game, though they were used to much better effect in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001). The two battle set-pieces near the beginning and the end are less cartoonish-and hence, more bone-crushingly violent-than their equivalents in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill . At least there’s one thing that both films demonstrate: The horrors of the 19th-century amputation of legs and arms without anesthesia have now been largely eliminated. Let’s hear two cheers for the new millennium!

21 Grams Too Much

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams , from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, confounded my high expectations by being much too depressing for my taste. Critics are supposed to be made of sterner stuff than that, even if their emotional evasions may expose their readers to needless suffering. But there it is, and I think I know some of the reasons why. First, as much as I admired Mr. Iñárritu’s first feature film, Amores Perros (2000), for both its Mexican fatalism and its magic-realist contrivances, 21 Grams seems to have transplanted its Mexican mood-dark, drab and dreary-directly to America. But then do I have a double standard for Mexico and the U.S. when it comes to films that are dark, drab and dreary? Perhaps, dark drab and dreary look less so when they’re accompanied by subtitles. Actually, the original script for 21 Grams was written by Mr. Arriaga to be set in Mexico, with Spanish-speaking actors; and the film’s Mexican cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, indicated that he intentionally set out to give 21 Grams a distinctively Mexican look. My complaint is that he succeeded too well.

If memory serves me correctly, however, 21 Grams seems much more fragmented than Amores Perros ever was. Both films construct their narrative around the scattered consequences of a traffic accident. Naomi Watts plays a wife and mother who loses her husband and two daughters to a hit-and-run driver, an ex-con Jesus-freak played by Benicio Del Toro. Sean Penn plays a mathematician with a bad heart and a shaky marriage. As blind fate would have it, the Penn character gets the heart of the accident victim and becomes obsessed with the donor’s wife. By the time all the criss-crossing destinies are resolved and all the vengeful feelings have been exhausted, things are about as bad as they can be. In the end, I just couldn’t believe it, with or without subtitles. So much for the supposed glories and universalized feelings of globalization: 21 Grams remains a Mexican film masquerading in Memphis as a gringo.