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  • 12
  • Biography, Documentary
  • 2005
  • 83 mins

Sketches Of Frank Gehry

Sketches Of Frank Gehry

Synopsis

Renowned filmmaker Sydney Pollack's first documentary feature is a love-letter to his long-time friend, the equally renowned architect Frank Gehry

About

Near the beginning of his Sketches Of Frank Gehry, Sydney Pollack is heard protesting his total ignorance of both architecture and the documentary form, and expressing his doubts about the very possibility of capturing Gehry's architectural achievements "in two dimensions on film".

Even if Pollack is a relative stranger to documentaries, a director of features as diverse as The Way We Were (1973), Three Days Of The Condor (1975), Tootsie (1982) and The Interpreter (2005) knows more than a thing or two about filmmaking; and as My Architect (2003) and Regular Or Super:Views On Mies Van Der Rohe (2004) have demonstrated, film is a medium peculiarly well-suited to illustrate the visual impact of a building.

In short, Pollack's anxieties are a tad disingenuous, but no more so than Gehry's subsequent claim never to have been able to achieve "a painterly surface" - to which Pollack responds with a sardonic "oh yeah?", followed by a barrage of lustrous images to prove beyond all doubt that both the filmmaker and the architect are fully capable of transcending their own chosen disciplines and assimilating the aesthetic values of others.

Sketches Of Frank Gehry is packaged as a dialogue between these two artists, and between their respective arts. Parallels are suggested from the very start: Gehry the man, his initial squiggly sketches and his studio experiments are all filmed informally on Mini Digital Video, while his finished edifices, in all their glass-and-titanium glory, are shot on film to show off their sinuous perfection. Pollack even manages to include quotes that characterise the architect in cinematic terms: Michael Ovitz compares Gehry's versatility to that of a writer-director, and Julian Schnabel (in a hilariously dramatic shades-and-bathrobe ensemble, with gin in hand) likens the flamboyant style of Gehry's structures to Robert Duvall's performance in Apocalypse Now.

The long-standing friendship between Pollack and Gehry brings both advantages and disadvantages. For while it ensures that Pollack's interviews with the architect are like intimate conversations, it also sets a tone of back-slapping homage where more critical inquiry would at times have been welcome.

Gehry's own assertions about his past, his first marriage, and the change of his name from Goldberg to Gehry are unelaborated and unchallenged. Editing largely reduces the contributions of others to sweeping, fawning soundbites, like Dennis Hopper's "Frank seems to live in the moment." Still, at least Hopper actually lives in a house designed by Gehry. Apparently all that qualifies musician Bob Geldof to appear in this film and mouth off about architecture is, apart from his general celebrity, the fact that once while touring in Germany he drove past Gehry's Vitra Furniture Museum and rather liked it.

Far better are the interviews with Gehry's artists, patrons, and even with his long-time therapist Milton Wexler, whose treatment is now sought by other aspiring architects hoping to channel some of Gehry's talent. Pollack, to his immense credit, also acknowledges the existence of dissenting voices by including comments from one of Gehry's most outspoken detractors, the art academic Hal Foster - even if his words are too cropped to reveal any criticism of substance. Only Charles Jencks, a friend of Gehry's and himself an architect, dares admit that amongst Gehry's many successes there have also been failures, as well as the odd work that has been "extremely ugly".

The picture of Gehry that emerges is a multi-faceted one, composed of historical anecdotes (as a young truck driver, he used to deliver breakfast to Roy Rogers), psychological generalisations and glimpses of the creative process at work - but the picture is also, in keeping with the film's title, very sketchy, and will leave most viewers none the wiser as to the nature of this architect's particular genius.

Fortunately Gehry's completed buildings, including the groundbreaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, combine with Pollack's adoring camerawork to tell their own story, beyond the personal mythology of the man who created them.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Philip Johnson, Sydney Pollack, Michael Eisner, Dennis Hopper, Chuck Arnoldi, Frank O Gehry, Julian Schnabel, Bob Geldof, Ed Ruscha, Milton Wexler
  • Director: Sydney Pollack
  • Producer: Ultan Guilfoyle
  • Photographer: George Tiffin, Marcus Birsel, Sydney Pollack, Ultan Guilfoyle, Claudio Rocha
  • Composer: Jonas Sorman, Claes Nystrom

In a nutshell

Pollack's first foray into the documentary genre is too vague for real insight, too conventional to match its subject's iconoclasm, and too affectionate to offer a truly critical account of the Gehry phenomenon, But there is no denying the beauty of the images that these two artists have constructed together.

by Anton Bitel

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