My Father The Genius
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My Father The Genius

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There is something very special about the relationship between a father and his daughter. In starts out as ‘daddy’s little girl’ and even after the daughter has grown into womanhood that bond typically remains. As a father of a now adult daughter I had to look at the documentary ‘My Father, The Genius’ through such eyes. Glen Howard Small is a man who has worked as an architect for over three decades. He looks at his career and his futuristic work with pride, sure that he was far above his peers. Like most men when they begin to feel there are more days behind than ahead he wanted some documentation of his life. For this he turned to his daughter, Lucia Small. His daughter decided that the best way to chronicle her father’s life is to make a documentary about him. The result is a poignant, often dark look at a man life through the eyes of his daughter.

The film begins with a close up of Glen driving his car. Besides him, just off camera is Lucia. She asks him a simple question; ‘Do you really think you’re the world’s greatest architect, dad?’ He grins and answers. ‘you aways as that with such doubt.’ This nicely sets up the tone for the film. We see a young woman exploring the reality of life juxtaposed to her father’s view. As the audience is shown a montage of his works we see that Glen is colorful, his paintings of ideas and buildings are full of vivid colors twisting around. There is a definite feeling of something from the seventies here, reminding me of some of the pop posters I remember from back then. Although he feels that he has offered something wonderful to humanity the voice over by Lucia tells us that few know his name and no books have ever been written about him. To his peers he has talent but not at the level that would propel him to fame. In his mind’s eye his work is genius. A few years before Glen had just written his last will and testament and wrote his daughter asking for her to take charge of writing his biography. This was a surprise since she was estranged from Glen. Her parents divorced when she was five and Lucia barely knew him. What confused Lucia even more was being made the choice for this project. Her younger sister Julie was a writer and older sister Christine, an artist, was always closer to Glen. Lucia accepted the offer partly to expand in her own craft of film and partly to get to know her father better. She told her father that instead of a written work she wanted to do a film instead and expand the work to all aspects of his life rather than only focus on his career. He agreed; as long as she got his work documented the rest was up to Lucia. He digs through his personal archives, kept in storage unit to show his daughter his work. She remembers taking one of his posters to school where the flying bubble cars and strange floral buildings brought laughter from the class.

Clips of a film Glen made decades ago show his dream. He wanted to build a bio-morphic biosphere, a sprawling group of structures that looked like a fractal graph from above. The idea started in 1965 as part of his master’s thesis and became an obsession afterwards. He wanted to design a city that would solve the ecological problems of humanity while looking beautiful. It touches the land in only a few places allowing the land to revert back to its natural state beneath. It was never built and not well received by others in his field. It was considered a ‘cool’ idea but hardly practical. It was considered experimental architecture, visionary but not completely realistic. It was his dedication to his dream that kept Glen from being successful as a husband and father. He openly states "Practical things bother me to no end." When the time came for Glen to choose between his dream and his family the dream won. Being arrogant as a young man, new to you r field is acceptable but in life compromises evitable have to be made. Glen rose quickly in his chosen career but fell even faster as his own self image of greatness over took him. While he lived ahead of his time in the future his family was left in the present.

While Glen never reached the pinnacle of his profession he did have his moments. He was one of the founders of the prestigious Southern California Institute for Architecture. His upper class clients found his buildings interesting even if there was some concern that the front door was not immediately visible. As the documentary demonstrates this was a man with vision, albeit not always grounded in reality. Interviews with Lucia’s sisters show that they all inherited their father’s imagination. All three are working in the arts; a writer, an artist and a film maker. Although he was for the most part away from them there must be some genetic trait towards thinking out the box that was passed along. Glen had two aspects of his life, designing buildings for people and his great project. The practical work he viewed as groveling, something that was necessary to make the money needed to live. When Lucia interviewed one of Glen’s ex-wives there was a moment where you could see in her eyes that he was a man who was able to touch the lives of others.

Right at the start of this documentary Lucia admits it is biased. She has mixed feelings about her father, pride of his work and getting to know the man who left her, her sisters and their mother. This is a complicated relationship that she captures well in this film. The film itself is unpolished and rough but that seemed to work considering the subject matter. Lucia tries to be fair by interviewing ex-wives, professional adversaries and siblings. She gives her father a platform to sound his own horn and offers an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures in his life. As a father with a daughter I was touched by this film thinking of how my life looks to my daughter. The pacing of the film is well done. Lucia moves locations rapidly, cutting in buildings that are works of art with drawings of her father’s creations. There is a touch of drabness to this work but that came across as a young woman getting to know her father for the first time in her life.

I’ve always enjoyed the off beat films presented on DVD by New Yorker. Here they do a very good job in bringing this film to disc. The full screen video is clear with an excellent color balance. The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 and considering the sound track is mostly talking, does a nice job. There are also some interesting extras included. One is a super 8 film made in the sixties about the bio-morphic biosphere narrated by Glen. There is an interview between Lucia and Glen that is emotional to watch. Added to this is a photo gallery slide show also narrated. In all this is an interesting freshman effort for Lucia Small demonstrating some natural talent.

Posted 04/05/07

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