I don't watch documentaries very often. It's not that I don't like documentaries, but it's about availability and publicity. As with independent films, the ones that get watched are the ones that either get the backing of a slick marketing campaign, or rave reviews. These often go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, I don't have the luxury of the professional critics who get free passes to just about every movie in a year. I don't have the time or the money to go searching for the right film.
So, generally, my search is limited to about ten documentaries a year, and those documentaries are the unlikely few who actually had ad dollars behind them or were nominated for an Oscar. "My Architect: A Son's Journey" was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary last year, so I figured I should check it out. While the premise didn't sound too interesting, it after all was nominated for an Academy Award...
"My Architect" is about director Nathaniel Kahn's journey to discover the truth about his father, respected architect Louis Kahn. Kahn was a brilliant man who created several buildings that are considered to be some of the finest of the time, but like many brilliant men also struggled with his home life. Nathaniel is his bastard son, born to a woman who was never Kahn's wife, and the architect also had another child out of wedlock earlier on.
Kahn is apparently well known in the architect's domain. His relationships are interesting. Altogether, he is worthy of being the subject of a documentary. His son, who was only 11 when he died in Penn Station, has the passion to direct the film. Unfortunately, what I watched was not an Oscar-worthy film - not even worthy of a nomination.
The documentary is okay, but it isn't that great. The director, for obvious reasons, has an interest in the subject and he presents the duality of his father's character with objectivity. Unfortunately, just because the subject is interesting does not mean you can make a two hour film on the subject interesting. I liked elements of the film, but after half an hour or so you've seen just about everything you need to see. Most of the people who are interviewed just reconfirm the genius of Kahn's mind and the selfishness of his personal life. Some of the characters the director meets are pretty interesting (especially his arch rival in Pennsylvania), but some are not. With a running time of nearly two hours, the documentary slugs along, which makes you wonder why the scene with the taxi driver wasn't cut, or the scene where the director flirts with a woman at the train station, or several other moments.
It probably doesn't help that I found most of the buildings Kahn created to be pretty damn ugly. His buildings are the essence of what I hate most in architecture, those that use concrete and concrete slabs to make entire buildings. Even his son seems to agree that several of his buildings do not stand the test of time, which makes you wonder why Kahn is such a major architect, and why the movie doesn't spend more time explaining that question. The director spends so much time showing us the same things about his personal life over and over again he forgets to tell us why we should distinguish him from the hundreds of millions of other bastard fathers who have certainly left their mark on this planet over the course of time.
I will admit that some of Kahn's works are quite amazing, especially his larger structures such as the National Assembly in Dacca, in Bangladesh. None of his buildings are very interesting from the outside, but the interiors are definitely something a bit more respectable.
Regardless of what I think about the architecture, Kahn was one of the foremost architects of the twentieth century and his son does a good job in bringing his story to life. Nevertheless, "My Architect" lacks the intensity and intrigue needed to take it to the next level, and in my book I can't see how Academy voters thought this one deserved attention.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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