Lucid and engaging, "Sketches of Frank Gehry" provides the enormously gratifying opportunity to spend an hour-and-a-half with an artistic giant. Sydney Pollack, in his first stab at docu filmmaking, takes advantage of his long friendship with the celebrated architect to sculpt an incisive portrait that trains a keen eye on what inspires and enables the subject to do what he does, just as Pollack's entertainer's instinct ensures the presence of strong doses of humanity and humor. Set for PBS airings on the American Masters series next fall, pic is intelligently rewarding in a way that would appeal to upscale specialized theatrical auds. Eventual DVD market will be big.
Disingenuously or not, Pollack assumes a know-nothing layman's perspective about architecture to provide a "Frank Gehry for Beginners"-like entree to his illustrious subject, most famous for his radical and breathtaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In fact, the first time we see Gehry at work in his studio, he and an associate are cutting out odd-shaped pieces of paper with scissors and bending them into different shapes, much as children might do in a kindergarten art class.
Thus disarmed into accepting Gehry as a plain-spoken regular guy, the viewer is taken on a rich tour of his artistic world and the journey that brought him to where he is today.
With Pollack himself often on view interrogating his friend with his own hand-held camera, Gehry is induced to reflect on his life and work in his striking home, visiting the Disney Hall construction site, riding around Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Aside from a handwriting expert who early on predicted Gehry would become a great architect, the beginnings were not auspicious. He failed a perspective class at USC, and in 1954 was persuaded to change his name from Goldberg. He hung out with artists, for years worked mostly on private residences in Southern California and as late as 1984 designed a structure as mundanely anonymous as the Santa Monica Place Mall.
The first building of "the new type," involving sweeping irregular curves, unusual materials and an acute sensitivity to the effect of light on a structure, was the Vitra Furniture Museum in Germany, finished in 1989. What led to this breakthrough, among other things, was analysis. With as much levity as insight, Gehry and his therapist of 35 years, Milton Wexler, note how Gehry had to emerge from a period of feeling "bankrupt" to achieve the boldness to reach his full potential, a process that involved leaving his first wife.
Wexler laughs that his successful treatment of Gehry caused countless less talented architects to come to him in hopes of making similar breakthroughs; if it were only that simple.
Gehry allows that the quality of a project depends to a great extent upon the quality of the client, and along the way Pollack introduces eminent clients (Michael Eisner, Dennis Hopper, Barry Diller), artist friends (Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel), architects (the late Philip Johnson) and even critics with less-than-flattering things to say.
The architect's work-process, although undoubtedly simplified, is neatly laid out. While Gehry still acknowledges his fear of the proverbial blank page, for him "the first move" generally consists of elegant pen-and-ink doodles of shapes, followed by cut-outs that are bent and taped together. Gehry insists that, "Everything has been done before, and the only thing that changes is technology," and while he can't operate a computer himself, he admits that 3-D computer modeling has enabled him to push his ideas much further.
Taking the discussion to a grander level is, of all people, Bob Geldof, who gripes that, "Architects have a lot to answer for." Gehry's work, at its best, stands as an example of how a single building can transform and elevate a neighborhood, even an entire city. The mayor of Bilbao testifies as to how the community's self-esteem, not to mention its tourism, has been enormously bolstered by the Guggenheim Museum, and Los Angeles residents are familiar with the transformative quality of Disney Hall.
At one point, Gehry acknowledges Pollack for having shown him by example a way to work in the commercial world, by finding a "sliver" of a point where an artist can express himself in a giant undertaking on which many parties must be satisfied. The men find rueful agreement that, on big projects that are often years in the making, they no longer like them by the time they're finished.
Quite apart from the privileged access to Gehry himself, the film offers superbly photographed impressions of the buildings; Bilbao, in particular, is shown from many different perspectives.
If Pollack has more world-class artist friends, he's bound to be hearing from them soon with requests to make films about them, based on the way he presents Gehry here.
Camera (color, HD), George Tiffin, Claudio Rocha, Marcus Birsel; video camera, Pollack, Guilfoyle; editor, Karen Schmeer; music, Sorman & Nystrom; sound, Jon Oh; associate producers, Brainerd Taylor, Suzanne Weil. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Masters), Sept. 10, 2005. Running time: 87 MIN.