Thursday, April 13, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: The Work Speaks For Itself

My wife is heading off to Washington, D.C. for a few days on business, so I thought it might be fun to tag along. I haven't roamed the streets of our nation's capital for, oh, coming up on 20 years. It's a town I enjoy a lot. There's all those museums, and all those monuments. It's like they built a city just for someone as geeky as me. And then denied it representation in Congress, which for some reason I tend to take personally. I have issues.

In preparation for my trip, I juggled the old Netflix queue and moved Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision to the head of the line. Lin is the woman who, while still an architecture student at Yale, designed the stunning Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which turned out to be one of the signature architectural statements of the 20th century. The movie about her made its own splash when it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This was only a signature event in the sense that it won in a year in which the Documentary Committee failed to nominate the brilliant Hoop Dreams, an oversight that permanently besmirches the credibility of the Academy. Complicating matters was that the film's director, Frieda Lee Mock, was a former leader of that committee. Oops. Basically, Mock was the Katharine Harris of the Academy. Awkward.

But I'm willing to set all that aside. I'm a huge admirer of Lin's work (among her other pieces are a Civil Rights Memorial in Birmingham, Alabama, and a salute to women at Yale), and I'm eager to take a look at the artistic process that informs her creations. I'm also up for any additional insight I can get before I lay eyes on The Wall once more. A film that can provide that will be right up my alley.

I hope somebody makes that film someday.

Architecture is a difficult thing to capture on film. After all, pictures rarely do justice to the sensory experience of being in a place. And architecture is all about place. So how do you get that across? Well, you can take any of the approaches used by Nathaniel Kahn in My Architect, his tribute to the works of his father. Kahn relies heavily upon slow, loving pans across buildings, showing them in their environment. Then, he lets people who use these buildings, or interact with these buildings, to have their say. And for good measure, he brings in some talking heads, other architects and critics to comment on why these buildings are successful. Any of these is a worthwhile approach to conveying the power of architecture in a medium that distances you from an actual place.

Mock opts for a very different approach: Maya Lin talking. Other than a few brief interview clips from people connected with Lin's selection for the Vietnam Memorial project, it's nothing but Lin talking about her work. This doesn't sound like such a bad thing. But Mock seems to think that's what the film is about: Maya Lin's words. And the truth is, Maya Lin has nothing to say. Not with words, anyway. Her works speak volumes, but Mock doesn't care about those. We keep cutting away from visions of a completed Lin work to see her give an entire speech in which she says nothing memorable. In the film, Lin openly admits that she's not good at speeches, and she doesn't have to be, since her designs convey far more than any speech. Maybe, just maybe, a picture could be worth all those words. I'm just speculating.

A lot of documentaries are filled with what you'd call "talking heads". Just expert after expert telling you why you ought to care. That can be very dry and uninteresting. But here's a documentary that shows why some outside perspective can be helpful. For example, we get short snippets from Jan Scruggs, leader of the movement to build a Vietnam memorial, explaining why his idea for a monument was unworkable, and why Lin's vision was so successful. We also get a little bit of her Yale professor, the architecture critic Vincent Scully, commenting on the purity of Lin's work process. In those brief moments, we learn far more about the scope of Lin's achievement than we do from half-an-hour of Lin talking. And we will never hear an outside voice again for the rest of the film. Birmingham, Yale, an art commission in Ohio, an African art museum in New York, all completely without external analysis, all devoid of meaning. Not even a random passerby to say whether she liked it or not. Just Lin, blah blah blah.
We never get to see the subject of all this talking.

And we know that people have opinions. Mock toploads the Vietnam Memorial section of the film with talk of virulent opposition, with idiot bureaucrats like James Watt and ultraconservative blowhards like Pat Buchanan trying to derail the entire project. We get to see this best in the personage of Tom Carhart, a passionately angry veteran, rails against Lin's design, comparing it bluntly to being spat upon by an anti-war protester. Well, that's certainly harsh. I wonder how he feels now, with the thing built and the worldwide consensus being that the memorial is one of the most eloquent representations of loss and honor ever constructed. Evidently, Frieda Lee Mock doesn't wonder. We only have Carhart because of Mock's true guft: finding archival news footage. I'm guessing Carhart never spoke publicly on the issue again, because we don't get one drop of a mea culpa from him or anybody else who thought Lin's vision was inadequate.

In fact, other than the throngs of people who she has filmed milling around Lin's work, we have absolutely no sense of what the public thinks. Lin's Civil Rights Memorial is pointedly in view of the Alabama state capitol, proudly flying the Confederate flag atop its dome. What do the black and white people of Birmingham think about this juxtaposition? No idea. We don't hear from any of them. Only the people who make speeches at the dedication are heard. How about the female students at Yale, to whom Lin's campus fountain is dedicated? Not a clue. The only ones we hear from are the ones in the choir singing at the dedication. In fact, time and time again, all we get from Mock are Lin's words and stock footage of public events. Mock hasn't done a lick of work, hasn't probed an inch into her subject. In her view, the very being of Maya Lin is enough. No further analysis is necessary.

This becomes most damaging when the film turns its attention to works we're not familiar with. Lin says she's very pleased with the Weber house, a structure somewhere in western Massachusetts with a large roof that arcs and slopes gently like rolling fields. Which is great, except, WHAT THE HELL IS THE WEBER HOUSE? Would a little context have killed us? I'm guessing it's a residence. But I'm honestly not sure. With all this talking, you'd think somebody could at least explain what the damn project is.

Or consider her foray into art. Lin evidently likes to work with broken glass (we're not told why), and she makes huge dunes comprised entirely of glass, blended specifically to take on a cool blue tint. We get several minutes of construction workers supervising the delivery, hoisting, and dumping of tons of broken glass. And we see Lin dutifully shoveling piles of glass, shaping it into mounds and plains, like some alien pasture. And how does it look? I couldn't tell you. Mock gives us a five-second shot of one installation, shot from above so that you have no concept of what this must look like to a viewer. Time and time again, the director shows that she doesn't care one little bit about the art. She thinks the story is Maya Lin, and it's not. The story is what Maya Lin makes.

This cannot be the last word on the designs of Maya Lin, because they are too moving, too powerful, too unified with their surroundings, too brilliant to be ignored. And that's why this film really irritated me. The opportunity was there, and the filmmaker didn't even care. I don't like to blame a film for what it's not, so I don't slam A Strong, Clear Vision for failing to be about what I wanted it to be about. However, I can criticize a film for what it is, and this one is useless. Mock has not failed to see the forest for the trees. She's too focused on the ground.

Boy, now I'm really angry about Hoop Dreams.