Wall of Fame/Wall of Blame/Wall of Shame
Architecture and landscape designer Maya Ying Lin owns and operates New York City studies which bear her name, but, unlike celebrity Franks Lloyd Wright and Gehry, has willingly receded from the spotlight glare of 1981. Twenty years old that year, the Yale senior was drawn into national controversy and consciousness, as recorded in Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.
Its title from the subject’s speech at Juniata College, director/coproducer Freida Lee Mock’s (plus former Yale and future Oscar Jessica Yu as Associate Producer) hundred-five minutes took the 1994 Oscar for considering that controversy and the response and work of the young woman over the following decade-plus. The film is one of twenty-two in “MoMA Selects: POV,” honoring the quarter century of the PBS series and itself one of three thematic programs within the annual Museum of Modern Art “Documentary Fortnight.”
One of two offspring of Chinese immigrants, Lin was thrust to the fore when hers was chosen from among 1,442 submissions in public competition for the plan for a proposed Vietnam Veterans Memorial near those of Lincoln and Washington. Subsequently the most visited of such capital sites, the “descending into the valley of death” then ascending wing-shaped “wound in the earth” polished black granite wall with its chronological nearly sixty thousand names, ignited acerbic debate about its -- and its designer’s -- appropriateness.
That “wound” and the one in the national psyche brought out some of the best and the worst in Americans.
The film is blessed with having no narrator and few talking heads, unobtrusive at that. Instead, there are long stretches of the architect herself, in various places explaining or demonstrating professional principles and purposes, built around a marriage of the designed structure with the natural venue and aiming at physical, psychological and emotional synergy.
In tee shirts with too-big sleeves, the diminutive but tough student, architect and lightning rod only once evidences the least awareness of fashion in clothing, that at her appearance at the Washington, D.C., hearing on the unusual plan selected for the memorial: grey like her outfit, a wide-brimmed hat hides her eyes as she speaks down into a microphone, her voice cracking on the verge of tears. But it doesn’t, and the lady of not many public words is self-assured throughout that day and the whole feature.
The dedication of the monument on Veterans Day weekend a year later, and the hundred-fifty-thousand-strong parade of veterans, is still a moving sight, “ragtag, ten years of waiting, the tears kept filling my eyes.” A lowlight of shame is the acrimony of the attacks on the design and the ability and ethnicity of the designer.
Lin is polite cool, to the point of distant, even when referring to opponents’ objections to her as a “Gook”--presidential hopeful Ross Perot’s “egg roll” is not brought in -- or voicing doubts about having been chosen if her Asian surname instead of a non-revealing number had been attached to the submission.
Herein lies the failure of the documentary. Lin plays it close to the vest in front of the camera or in brief public speeches, or is that way in life, too, so there is no emotional depth to the portrait. After this initial, famous triumph, there are others -- often involving circular or falling water -- in memorials and landscaping, buildings and exhibits and installations. Processes are illuminated and illustrated, dedicatory ceremonies shown, honorary degrees conferred, but the carefully un-political self-effacing woman does not emerge as a personality beyond a wall of concentration. There are but the most fleeting of seconds of archival parents and older brother, and no friends, not a breath of social or love life -- sources indicate she is married today, with two daughters -- no shots of a home, a meal, a book, a hobby.
With nothing below surfaces and no insight, after detailing the controversy of a dozen years earlier, ML:SCV becomes a series of projects and theories, neither strong nor clear enough to engage layman viewers.
(Released by Docurama; not rated by MPAA.)