Review: Philip Kennicott on documentary about I.M. Pei, 'Learning From Light'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; C05

Filmmakers are naturally drawn to architecture because, of all the arts, it is the one most congenial to the camera. And documentary makers, in particular, are drawn to architects because, of all creative types, architects are certainly the best talkers.

So it's no surprise that I.M. Pei, a very good talker who will turn 93 on Monday, has been the subject of at least two films recently. The most recent, Bo Landin's "Learning From Light: The Vision of I.M. Pei," plays at Filmfest D.C. starting Thursday.

It is a terrible film, so bad you can only wonder why it would appear under the auspices of a respectable film festival. If you've watched cable television late at night, clicking around between the infomercials and the History Channel shows about large hydroelectric dams and super-tall buildings, you know the tone of "Learning From Light." It has not a single critical thought in its head. Its script proceeds breathlessly from cliche to cliche, and it fails even as good hagiography.

I.M. Pei, we learn, is "a tough master indeed, and a tactful diplomat." For transitional material, we get this: "At the museum, a new day dawns. . . ." And when the camera shows us tedious footage of construction, we're told, "At the peak of activity, 1,600 workers bring skills from many countries to the site."

Why does prose like this exist? Because the writers, and filmmakers, have nothing to say. Or they are constrained by funding or other relationships to say only positive, meaningless things. "Learning From Light," which documents the architect's design of the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, and it sounds it. Screening it at a tourism convention makes perfect sense; screening it at a film festival is ridiculous. Filmfest, according to its director, Tony Gittens, has no policy against screening films paid for by people who are subjects of the films.

To the extent that the film follows a meaningful thread, it is about Pei's search for an architectural form that will express the essence of Islamic architecture. We learn that he rejects several important possible precedents: the carved splendors of Fatehpur Sikri in India, the Alhambra palace and the Great Mosque of Cordoba, both in Spain. Instead, he is drawn to the stripped-down, archaic and austere forms of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo.

Fair enough. But somebody might also point out that Pei rather self-servingly selects the building that most resembles his own, preexisting aesthetic. The result, not surprisingly, looks a little like the Mosque of Ibn Tulun and a lot like the National Gallery East Wing.

The filmmakers won't say that, of course. Nor will they push back on the architect's decision to locate the museum away from the dense center of Doha. Can you walk to the museum? Does it add to city life? Or is this an egotistical demand to heighten the purely aesthetic impact of the building?

Don't worry. None of these questions is pursued, either. The only dark cloud on the horizon of this sunny film is some palm trees, which don't survive being transplanted along a promenade leading to the museum. So they plant some new ones.

Bad films aren't just a waste of time. We live in a world besieged by advertising and paid speech. Pseudo-art, pseudo-argument, pseudo-documentary, pseudo-thinking are everywhere. They are a toxin, and they spread insidiously through the public realm. Lines should be drawn, and film festivals should be at the forefront of drawing those lines. Filmfest should have protected the public from this kind of advertorial.

For audiences interested in a slightly deeper treatment of Pei, check out the television documentary "I.M. Pei: Building China Modern," which can be viewed free on the PBS Web site.

Learning From Light: The Vision of I.M. Pei

(84 minutes) screens at the Goethe-Institut Thursday and Friday

at 6:30 p.m.

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