The Wright stuff -- and not Ken Burns' biography of the famous American architect, airing this week on PBS, captures the genius of his work but also reveals the turmoil and scandal of his private life.

November 08, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Ken Burns believes architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a great man and heroic figure.

Yet, he has made a four-hour film about Wright that he believes will lead some people to loathe the man.

At a time when many are trying to balance the public accomplishments with the personal behavior of President Clinton, as well as reconcile new information from DNA studies about Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder, with Jefferson, the revered author of our Declaration of Independence, Burns has a larger message for us about biography, history and how we see our collective past.

As poet laureate of the American documentary for such popular and critically acclaimed films as "The Civil War," "The Brooklyn Bridge," "Baseball" and "Thomas Jefferson," Burns speaks with a definite expertise.

"If somebody walks out of a screening of this film and says, 'I hate Frank Lloyd Wright,' I can understand how they'd feel that way," Burns said in an interview last week. "I've had people come out of screenings and say, 'Oh, what a [jerk]!' And I say, 'Yup, you're right.'

"But I think that's one of the very best things we did in this film is allow both sides of Wright - the great art and this impossible, turbulent private life - to co-exist. And, then we let you, the viewer, come to your own conclusion."

"Frank Lloyd Wright," which airs Tuesday and Wednesday nights on PBS, does capture the genius of Wright using cinematography, biography, expert analysis and the music of Beethoven to explain the inner workings of many of Wright's most stunning creations.

From Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., to Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., from the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wis., to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the risk and range of his work as seen in this film is dazzling.

But many viewers will be stunned by Frank Lloyd Wright, the man, for whom Burns cuts no slack. Wright, who was born in 1867 and died in 1959, lived way beyond his means, was always in debt and almost never completed a project on time or within the budget promised to clients. When he worked for others in the early years, he stole their clients. Throughout his long career, which continued up to the day he died, he was a shameless self-promoter perfectly willing to lie about his resume.

In 1909, Wright left his wife and six children without means of support to run off with the wife of a neighbor-client. He married twice more, with one wife dying in a mysterious fire at a commune of sorts that he ran in Wisconsin. His personal life was a constant source of public scandal decades before our current Age of Confession.

"So I can see how somebody would feel all the great art in the world doesn't make up for some of the things Wright did in his fTC life. But the mistake is to look at all of that in a simplistic black-and-white way. And I think that's one of the hardest things to avoid in our culture today," Burns said.

"Here's the thing. We live in an information, media-dominated age. And, unless we guard against it in every moment of our lives, we're engaged in the most simplistic, superficial duality: yes/no, male/female, black/white, good/bad. ...

"Neither is true. There is a balance that can take place. You know, we somehow think that a hero today is perfect. A hero's not perfect. And the Greeks have been telling us this for thousands of years: A hero is the fascinating negotiation between a person's strength and weakness."

Burns says that is one of the truest things he knows after the many "journeys of nonjudgmental discovery" that he's made with figures of American life and history ranging from Thomas Jefferson and Jackie Robinson to Huey Long and Duke Ellington. But it has also put him at odds with some other historians, he acknowledged.

"I remember with 'The Civil War,' some real Marxist academic said, 'How can you possibly put in and give time to Nathan Bedford Forrest?' He was, you know, a great Confederate general, who, after the war, became the first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and then quit when the Klan became too violent even for him. And we say all that in the epilogue of 'The Civil War.'

"But their idea is you don't do that. You change the name of the Nathan Bedford Forrest High School or something. And I say no. What you do is acknowledge that this [American history] is a family drama. This is a family album. We can all pick up our family photo albums and look and there's Uncle So-and-so who nobody likes and he's pretty much of a jerk. But he's our uncle.

"And what I was trying to say is that Nathan Bedford Forrest was in our family, and we had to know him as much as we had to know Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

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