Sunday, July 31, 2005

#13: MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY & PROFF – On Time, Art, & How We Know One Another, at the Redhouse 8/19/2004 It is easy enough to say that the different arts feed one another. The current offerings at The Redhouse take this further than usual. Together, William Smith’s paintings, the film MY ARCHITECT, & the play PROOF are like nested baskets or wonderfully interlocking pieces of a puzzle. In particular, those paintings prepare your perception for both the film & the play. William Smith’s paintings are vivid landscapes of trees & their reflections in water. Some fade like aged parchment at their edges. Others seem to erupt from the classical literary texts they’re painted on top of. Now we usually call this “tension,” don’t we? The tension between time & memory, fact & emotion, nature & technical expertise, public & private, as if they were opposites. Really it’s the shock of proximity at work. This can sometimes be witty to, when we suppose such categories mutually exclusive. Now let’s look at the two stories of children of brilliant & difficult parents. Nathaniel Kahn spent five years making the Oscar-nominated MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY, about his father Louis, the most significant architect of the late 20th century. One of three offspring of his father’s triple life, he was eleven when his father died. As a survey of Louis Kahn’s time & work alone, this flm’s impressive. To barely scratch the surface, there’s the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences overlooking the Pacific in California, & the breath-taking National Assembly in Dakka, Bangladesh (built by hand labor over 23 years). So revered in the latter that Bangledeshi architect Shamsul Wares, who worked on the project, says tearfully that Kahn “gave us democracy.” Nathaniel Kahn may be forgiven for thinking of these buildings as his brothers & sisters. An artist in his own right, he looks for his father in his father’s work. He had trouble funding this film. Investors preferred the public architect to the private family saga. Mixed or negative responses to the film generally focus on this too. Charges that he’s merely angry seem baffling & off the mark to me. Some of the most wining moments arise from the generous, artistic use Nathaniel makes of the personal & unexpected. Interviewing his mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel annoys her by pressing a point. She sighs & rolls her eyes, exclaims impatiently, “Oh Nathaniel!” It’s brave to leave that in, because he looks clumsy. Yet the vey fact of her motherhood comes flooding through most in this instant – as filmmaking, this telegraphs powerfully her dignity & dilemma in raising an illegitimate son in a time this was scandalous. Interviewed later, Nathaniel discussed film & architecture as similar art forms. “So many people conspure to reduce your vision,” he says. Both artforms are time-consuming, both “constructed. You put stone on stone. Ultimately architecture is about space & light. Films are also light. Physically speaking it is literally capturing the light.” These art forms merge in the movie when Nathaniel roller-blades on the plaza of the Salk Institute, swooping in great arcs. This visually lyrical moment embodies the possibilities of interacting with art. David Auburn’s play PROOF took three Tonies & a Pulitzer after opening in 2001, & soon comes to the screen. PROFF gives us another accomplished & challenging parent & this time, a daughter. Like MY ARCHITECT, it’s profoundly hopeful. Both kids emerge more than holding their own. PROOF takes place in Chicago entirely on a porch, that architectural overlap between public & private space. Nathaniel Kahn said his father was “like a ghost weaving in & out of people’s lives.” PROOF stats with a ghost too – the night before his funeral & her birthday, a mathematical genius-slash-sometime-psychotic appears to his daughter Catherine. Oldest daughter Claire, a high-powered currency analyst, is coming home from New York. And eager-beaver grad student Hal is already rooting around in the notebooks left behind. PROOF resurrects the exact moment Catherine abandoned efforts to leave her unstable father. And her own future turns on whether Claire & Hal believe her sanity & talent. Mary-Louise Parker of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, BULLETS ONBROADWAY & BOYS ON THE SIDE created the role of Catherine. Now Laura Austin makes it her own. The dilemma: how to dramatically portray this young woman’s cerebral giftedness? We catch ourselves admitting it really is much easier to believe in her professor father. Catherine’s not the right gender for math, doesn’t have the right credentials or experience. Hal describes the elegance of the old man’s best work as “no wasted moves.” Which could describe Gerard Moses’ directing too. We start to believe as we watch Catherine seduce Hal. Laura Austin must make us believe this homebound, socially prickly, even overly bright young woman has it in her to be far more with it than we gave her credit for. Kathleen Flanagan is no slouch as the all-together Catherine either. Some of this production’s best moments are pieces of stage business actually not in the play’s text. Clair changes a ceiling light bulb on the porch by standing on a rickety folding chair in stiletto-heeled sandals – doesn’t miss a beat. Later, characters furiously throw a notebook back & forth in a hugely powerful physical “conversation” about trust & blame & despair. Math itself is subtly redefined as interactive by Hal & Catherine’s final exchange – also not in the text. According to the Redhouse folks, they want their overall programming to achieve such conversation among the works presented as a matter of course. If they continue to succeed so well, how we experience art in Central New York will be taking a quantum leap. (951)