Review: ‘Integral Man,’ a documentary by Joseph Clement

by Andrew Parker

Blending appreciations of mathematics, music, and architecture into a fascinating and harmonious mixture, Joseph Clement’s Canadian made documentary Integral Man looks at one of Toronto’s most exclusive and unique residences; tucked away in the recesses of the city’s affluent Rosedale neighbourhood and jutting out almost into the Don Valley. Taking viewers on an in-depth look at mathematician and culture lover Jim Stewart’s fabled “Integral House,” Clement’s film looks at the personal motivations behind creating one of the most elaborate private dwellings in the world.

Stewart, a former McMaster University professor who chose math over music while he was studying in his youth, is best known as the most widely published mathematician of the past century. Essentially writing the book on calculus, Stewart’s textbooks are seen as the gold standard around the world. The writer and self-described “citizen of the world” parlayed his success into becoming a philanthropist and gay right’s advocate. He always loved entertaining large amounts of guests with elaborate and intimate musical performances, so when he set out to design the house where he wanted to spend the rest of his life, Stewart sought a way to marry all of his interests into the design of a single building.

One of Integral Man’s most impressive and paradoxically least artistic shots is a staggering time lapse look at the multi-year process of building Stewart’s home. A symbiotic marriage of concrete, wood, glass, and the natural beauty of the woodlands surrounding it, Integral House certainly wasn’t easy to build and to spend time within its walls is to see a labour of love fully realized. Stewart personally interviewed his architects and made two simple demands for the house: it had to have curves and there had to be a performance space. Outside of those two demands, Stewart saw the construction of his $34 million home as a collaborative effort, and one where he was willing to take chances most clients would have shied away from. When it was completed, the home played host to many benefits put on by Stewart for various organizations. The musicians that passed through its doors loved playing there because many likened it to performing within a living instrument.

Clement spends a great deal of time getting to know Stewart throughout Integral Man through a series of interviews conducted over a formative period of time in the mathematician’s life, and while the audience will almost immediately like the decidedly not-crazy mastermind behind such an unusual property, the emphasis is placed on getting to know the home owner’s thought process. It’s not hard to see the obvious, basic links between mathematics, architecture, engineering, musical composition, and performance. Without math, none of those other things would exist, so Stewart’s house becomes a reflection of a man who constantly followed his interests until he found a way to display them all at the same time. While his textbooks have netted him millions and made him an internationally known figure, there’s a sense that Stewart is prouder of his new home than any of his past accomplishments. There’s a piece of Stewart in every aspect of his home, and it’s for this reason that Integral Man feels like something intimate and profound rather than a guided property tour.

Integral Man isn’t only about the construction of Stewart’s abode and why it has been so intricately designed, but it’s hard to talk about the film’s later moments without potentially spoiling the film. What happens with Stewart and the property can easily be Googled if you so wish to find out, but I would argue that the story of Integral House is more appropriately told from the perspective of Stewart and his architects as shown in Clement’s film instead of in a news article. Around the film’s halfway point a personal wrinkle in Stewart’s life presents itself, and Integral Man becomes a very different sort of documentary.

In some respects, the documentary that makes its way to the big screen isn’t as soundly constructed as the property it’s reflecting. The rigid adherence to Stewart’s personal narrative and a running time clocking in at barely an hour in length means that many connections between Clement’s subject, the house, and outside cultural issues are left dangling and unexplored. There’s a large chunk of story not being touched upon by Integral Man, and it’s a story that’s begging to be told. While Clement has left few stones unturned when it comes to Stewart’s inspirations and feelings, there are only fleeting moments where the film shows what this man meant to the people around him, and once the film decides to start talking about such matters, it’s already close to being over.

Clearly made with intentions to air on a public or private broadcaster, I do think that Integral Man dances dangerously close with being too slight to warrant theatrical exhibition in front of paying audiences. But what makes this worthy of a big screen recommendation is how beautifully Clement and cinematographer Jackson Parrell have captured the light, shadows, and reflections of Integral House. Stewart designed his home to be best appreciated by someone moving throughout its curving rooms, impressive staircases, and open spaces. It was not a place where someone inside it was asked to stand still, and Clement and Parrell have done justice to their subject’s vision. Working hand in hand with Stewart’s candid recollections and likable candor (and a sound design that’s no slouch, either), Clement turns Integral Man from a potentially slight and enjoyable television project into a large scale feast for the senses.

Integral Man opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, July 7, 2017. On Friday, July 7th following the 6:15 pm performance, Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovoic will conduct a Q&A. Following the 6:15 pm performance on Saturday, July 8th, Brigitte Shim, one of the founding partners of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects and one of the designers of Integral House, will conduct a Q&A. And following the 6:30 pm performance on Sunday, July 9, Larry Wayne Richards, the former Dean at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscaping, and Design, will be on hand for a Q&A.

Check out the trailer for Integral Man:


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