I travelled via Amtrak (if you haven't travelled via Amtrak, I'd recommend doing so before the government makes a ridiculous decision to discontinue funding) to New York City in the Fall of 2003. Formerly an impressive architectural landmark, Penn Station is the Amtrak hub in New York City. While awaiting my return train, I was almost overwhelmed by the amount of people rushing through the old station, which now sits under Madison Square Garden. While I adored the city, the station seemed like it had long faded from its original glory: it appeared old and a bit tired, with its giant departure/arrival sign looming large over the rather confusing set of gates, many of which lead down into the depths of the station. The spirit of the place felt tough and rather unforgiving - the lighting was somewhat dim and cold, and it seemed difficult not to get swept away in waves of humanity rushing throughout the old structure, especially during the busiest periods.
Penn Station is also where the documentary "My Architect" begins. The film is directed by and stars Nathaniel Kahn, the son of the famed architect Louis I. Kahn. Louis died, in debt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom when he was in his 70's. He was not immediately identified, because he had scratched out his address on his passport. On his obituary, Nathaniel thought that he would find his name included, but he did not: as it turns out, Louis had two other families that he had kept a secret.
Nathaniel, who never really found out much about his father, then decides to go on a trip that will go all over the world in order to find out more about his dad. Nathaniel's journies bring him to interviews with everyone from his father's colleagues to the cabbies that would often drive him around. He also meets the person who found his father in the bathroom at Penn. The film also shows footage of the architect's famed works, such as the Salk Institute in La Jolla and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
This is a wonderful documentary, despite the fact that it does kind of keep to the conventional documentary structure of talking head interviews and some clips and other archival footage. It's a saddening and emotional trip than Nathaniel takes (I couldn't help but be moved to tears a few times), and it's certainly a compelling one, too. While the film is a strong and often remarkable portrayal of both the man and his artwork (athough Nathaniel's journey sometimes threatens to overshadow the look at his father), I'd be surprised if it doesn't touch off strong feelings in the film's viewers about the importance of their own families.
The film does have its flaws, however: Nathaniel isn't the greatest interviewer (he doesn't tell one of his subjects he's the son of Louis until late in the interview and I didn't get why he didn't just tell him in the first place), and a few moments could have been snipped for pacing, as the picture runs about 10 minutes too long. There's also the main problem with Nathaniel's search: while it's interesting to see Nathaniel learn more about his father, a main answer he's seeking about his father is pretty apparent from the start: architecture and his work were his main passion. I liked the fact that we don't get all the answers about Louis Kahn here, but some may not enjoy that.
Louis Kahn may have always kept his work first, and "My Architect" is a very fascinating portrayal of a complex, flawed, intelligent and secretive man who wanted to spend his life making breathtaking structures that would be inspirational and timeless.
VIDEO: "My Architect" is presented by New Yorker Films in 1.33:1 full-frame, which I'm guessing is the original aspect ratio that the film was shot in. The picture quality is about as good as one would expect, given the material. Sharpness and detail were first-rate throughout the program, as the picture maintained a fine level of definition and clarity.
The picture did show some minor shimmering at times, but no pixelation or edge enhancement were seen, and the elements used appeared free of damage. Some of the stock footage looks a little worn, but it's in pretty good condition, given the age. Colors looked natural and nicely saturated, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: The film's 2.0 soundtrack is mainly dialogue-driven, and dialogue/score remained crisp and clear.
EXTRAS: A Q & A with director Nathaniel Kahn is included.
Final Thoughts: Saddening, dramatic, fascinating and occasionally even a bit funny, "My Architect" is a very compelling look at a man who was entirely devoted to his art, even though he lost a great deal of money and hurt the families he'd created, in the process. New Yorker's DVD edition provides fine audio/video quality and a few good supplements. Recommended.