An ego, a talent as big as all outdoors Preview: Ken Burns tackles another American icon in his biography of the architect 'Frank Lloyd Wright.'

November 10, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

At the start of "Frank Lloyd Wright," filmmaker Ken Burns' PBS biography of America's most famous architect, you will hear Wright talking about Beethoven. Listen closely.

"My father taught me that a symphony was an edifice of sound," Wright says in an interview recorded before his death in 1959. "And I learned pretty soon that it was built by the same kind of mind in much the same way that a building was built. I used to sit and listen to Beethoven. He was a great architect. The two minds are quite similar because they arrange and build, plot and plan in very much the same way."

Music is central to a Ken Burns documentary. In fact, Burns says the rhythm and mood of a certain artist or kind of music often serves as the unifying force for all the thousands of images and words that make up one of his films. Just as the fiddle and acoustic guitar sounded the very heartbeat of "The Civil War," Beethoven is everywhere in "Frank Lloyd Wright," a two-night, three-hour biography Burns co-directed with Lynn Novick.

Listen to the "Moonlight Sonata" as the narration seeks to describe a grief-stricken, isolated Wright after a tragic fire that claimed the life of the woman he loved in 1914. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Burns even finds a way to make "Ode to Joy" seem a perfect fit for the words, pictures and tone he's trying to hit near the end of the film.

There is something else to notice in Wright's statement about Beethoven -- the connection Wright sees between himself and the composer. In Wright's mind, they are both men of genius above the laws that govern common folk like you and me. As Wright put it, "Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance."

Perhaps the best thing about "Frank Lloyd Wright" is how Burns and Novick key in on Wright's screaming ego and understand it as an almost superhuman force that drove him to reinvent himself several times, come back from personal disaster and professional disgrace too many times to count, and reshape the American landscape like no other architect before or since.

With "Baseball," "Thomas Jefferson," "Brooklyn Bridge" and the new "Jazz," Burns specializes in things American, and Wright's forward thrust, his let's-bury-the-dead, harness-the-horses and keep-these-wagons-heading-west sensibility, is the most American thing about him. It allowed Wright to stage a comeback after age 70 and achieve some of his greatest success, with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, on the very eve of his death at age 91.

Wright's life is an incredible story. Born on the prairie of central Wisconsin in 1867, he was raised by an adoring mother and infused with an Emersonian love of nature during summers spent on her family's farm. After only a year or so at the University of Wisconsin, where he learned the rudiments of drafting, he arrived in Chicago and before long was working as the right-hand "pencil man" for one of the leading architects at the turn of the century.

But Wright was also stealing clients from his boss and moonlighting under assumed names to try to support his lavish tastes. He never learned to live within his means -- in any sense of the word. In 1909, he left his wife and six children to run off to Europe with a woman who was a neighbor and the wife of a client. In the documentary, you will hear his son David, 100, telling what it was like when he left the family "with nothing but bills." His grandson, Eric, describes the physical violence in Wright's house.

All told, there were three wives and one full-time, live-in mistress. Wright and his last wife, Oglivanna, ran a fellowship for apprentice architects at his compound, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. They ran it much like a religious cult, with Wright as the object of worship.

Burns and Novick do a wonderful job of telling the story of the man. They provide facts, details and, above all, context. They also seem scrupulously honest. At one crucial point in telling the story of the fire that killed Wright's mistress, the narrator says, "No one knows exactly what happened." I can't remember the last time I heard any television voice admit that it didn't have an answer.

The filmmakers are not as successful, though, in communicating what it feels like to be inside a Wright house or building. Yes, all the important stops are made: Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill.; the Johnson building in Racine, Wis.; Fallingwater in Pennsylvania; and Taliesin in Wisconsin. And, without a doubt, the pictures, words and music offer a lot.

But as I watched, never did I feel any of the transcendence that I experienced the first time I entered the Johnson building or stood outside and looked at Fallingwater in the full context of its natural setting.

Transcendence is probably too much to expect from a television documentary. If I'm asking too much, I apologize, Ken. Blame it on all that Beethoven.

Burns hits again

What: "Frank Lloyd Wright"

When: Today and tomorrow, 9 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m.

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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