My Father The Genius (2005)

by | Apr 12, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

My Father The Genius (2005)

Documentary by Lucia Small
Studio: Small Angst Films/Metro Home Entertainment MHE 109607
Video: 4:3 color
Audio: PCM 2.0, English SDH
Extras: Interview between filmmaker & her father; 1970s Mini-Movie on Biomorphic Biosphere with architect Small; 4 fellow architects speak about Small; Narrated slide show; Sundance Channel’s Aftereffect; Teaser for Genius II documentary
Length of feature: 84 minutes
Rating: ****

Ah, what opportunities today for documentary filmmakers! I envy Small for her abilities to shoot on inexpensive video and easily edit, enhance and insert all sorts of film and still sources – including even Super 8 footage. Plus there’s a market for documentaries in the theaters as well as on DVDs now. There wasn’t when I struggled to get funding for 16mm documentaries in the 60s. The blurb on the box compares the film to My Architect (which I haven’t yet seen) in balancing her father’s family obligations with his passion to “save the world thru architecture.”  She does a good job of it.

Visionary architect Glen Howard Small asked his daughter to write his biography, even though she hadn’t seen him much since her parents divorced when she was five. Instead she proposed doing a film, and this is it. It explores his advanced ideas and innovations, but also bravely deals with his often abrasive personality and financial problems (when the original film was shot he had $60K on his credit cards). As Small reveals in a post-film interview with his daughter, the two of them had differing agendas in making the film, since he wanted to present his innovative ideas in the best manner and she wanted to delve into his marriages, family relationships, and career setbacks too.

When just 31 Small helped found Sci-Arc, a forward-looking architectural school in Southern California. He developed and has since focused his career on his Biomorphic Biosphere – an extremely futuristic concept of creating living spaces attuned to wild nature – way beyond the concepts of Frank Lloyd Wright. He later proposed a somewhat more realistic concept called The Green Machine, which got considerable national publicity.  At the time he was called, and feels he is, a genius. Several fellow architects admit his work has a lot validity, and was way ahead of its time in showing concern for the environment (today referred to as “green architecture”). But his single-mindedness on his quest meant that he often failed to work well with others, and he alienated most of the architectural world  when as a member of a panel on the future of architecture he insulted one by one all of the other panel members – included architects such as Frank Gehry.  He was later ousted from Sci-Arc. One of the architects describes Small as difficult to work with because “he carries his stigma with him.”  Small reveals to his daughter that he was highly influenced by the Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead, and tried to emulate its lead character.

His family relationships were clearly secondary to his architectural work, as candidly revealed by his ex-wives and daughters in interviews, and eventually by Small himself, who felt the making of the film changed his personality for the better. The extras are just as interesting as the documentary, and serve to flesh out for the viewer a more forgiving impression of Small’s not-so-small faults. Seeing his old Super 8 film explaining the Biomorphic Biosphere makes it seem truly visionary and not so insane. Also the later interview with him and his daughter-filmmaker (she appears a completely different and more attractive person now that the film is finished) plus the “Teaser” footage show that his bad luck has changed and three years later he is designing several buildings in Managua, Nicaragua, and has a girlfriend there who thinks he is a genius. His daughter would like to make a second film just on his architectural work this time.

 – John Sunier


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