a film by Nathaniel Kahn
The new documentary film from Nathaniel Kahn is a fascinating personal exploration into the life of Kahn's father - the highly influential architect and teacher Louis Kahn. It is an obviously compelling - if somewhat exhibitionistic - journey of discovery for the film-maker, who both narrates and appears in the footage.
Unfortunately for the overall success of the film, Nathaniel pursues his father's history - more than twenty years after his death, alone and bankrupt in New York City's Penn Station - with a delicacy and reticence that makes the elder Kahn's life both more intriguing and more obscure, This biography raises far more questions about its secretive, self-absorbed, brilliant subject than it proposes to answer.
When Nathaniel announces at the end of the film that he has come to "know" his father better, it comes as something of a surprise. While the audience has learned a great deal about the elder Kahn's career and heard some testimony about his character and personality from some who knew him, the movie gives the distinct impression of a man who was so self-contained and deeply involved in his own world as to be nearly opaque to others.
That Kahn's work had a tremendous influence on other architects is undeniable - masters from Philip Johnson to I. M. Pei testify to it before the camera. That his work was original, daring and thoughtful is demonstrated by excursions to some of his buildings. But emotionally,Louis remains as unknown as the architects of the pyramids - on whose deep awe of the monumental geometry of structure he sought to build.
And while the look into Kahn's life is interesting, he son's careful, respectful attitude renders it somewhat superficial. Louis Kahn was a man who was married for more than four decades to the same woman, with whom he raised a daughter - but he had at least two affairs on the side - with impressionable younger employees in his office - which yielded him out-of-wedlock children - of whom Nathaniel is one.
What sort of a man can split his affections and attention in such a way? What kind of a man can live the kind of "double life" Louis maintained for more than a decade? How does such duplicity at the center of one's life affect the quality of one's relationships and self-image? How does such a person see himself, explain himself to himself? Unfortunately, we learn less than we ought to - given the investment of time we are asked to make - about these and other such fascinating questions of human psychology that are at the center of Nathaniel's quest.
In the final event, Nathaniel is (understandably) reluctant to press such witnesses as his own mother and his father's other mistress (and mother of his half-sister) far enough to elicit any deep insight into either Louis's state-of-mind or their own. While he asks some difficult questions, he withdraws in the face of the strong emotions that begin to emerge, leaving many of the most interesting emotional artifacts of his father's life only half-excavated.
Louis was a man without, apparently, any very close friends. At any rate, Nathaniel doesn't include interviews with any here. Louis's professional colleagues provide some glimpses of his working style and his behavior, of his interests and eccentricities - but they don't seem to know anything about how he was feeling inside. Likewise, the mothers of his children - while both clearly harbor strong and apparently positive feelings about him - never express, within the context of the footage Nathaniel supplies, any real sense that they knew what was going on in his inner life either.
Even Nathaniel himself, who ought to have been a powerful witness, is very reserved and unemotional in responding to what he "discovers." We don't know, for instance, whether he was angry about his father's absences from the "family," or whether he felt a protective resentment on his mother's and his own behalf against the man who both nurtured and neglected them. We don't get much a glimpse of the quality of the emotional exchanges between father and son, except through a very few recollections of Nathaniel's that are related with a curiously dispassionate affect.
Nathaniel presents some evidence - a picture book of crazy boats he and his father created together and a postcard with a somewhat reflective and self-deprecatory message - but what these things symbolized, either for Nathaniel himself, and even more for his father - who is after all the subject here - remains mysterious and unresolved.
Perhaps this documentary succeeds most of all in exposing how difficult it is for us to know one another - or rather, how easy it is for us to conceal ourselves. Even a man's own father, despite a thorough dedication to learning about him, can remain in many important ways "unknown" to him.
But because of the hints that appear - particularly from Louis's two lovers and his three children - there is also an unsatisfying sense that more is actually being discovered than is revealed - that the film-maker has teased us, promised to include us in the revelations and then held back. That is of course his right, and shows a certain respect for those involved, but it has to leave the audience feeling that the film is a less satisfying and insightful experience than it might have been.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z