The idea of watching a documentary about the making of the Getty Center, a huge museum complex in California, seems about as appealing as watching an evening’s worth of especially uninspired programming on the Learning Channel. But somehow a trio of established documentarians -- Susan Froemke, Bob Eisenhardt and Albert Maysles -- have taken this rather arcane and potentially dry-as-dust subject matter and made it, if not exactly riveting, then generally interesting over its 100-minute length.
The premise is that the late billionaire J. Paul Getty left behind, in the Getty Trust, money to be used to build an elaborate structure which was to be a combination of a series of public art galleries and a resource center for art scholars. It’s the sort of thing billionaires do, now that pyramids are no longer the rage.
From its inception to its completion in 1997, the project took 12 years and the film covers, roughly, the last six of those -- a good editorial choice, since the first six years seem to have been spent in getting the principals together and securing a site. As we enter the story, various personages of the Getty Trust are reassuring various homeowners that the museum complex, to be situated on a hill overlooking Los Angeles and environs, won’t be some grotesque blot on the landscape or otherwise disturb the moneyed placidity of the neighborhood. Since the neighborhood is Brentwood, this is almost too ironic too bear.
Soon we meet the architect, the famous Richard Meier, who looks a bit like Ray Bradbury, avuncular but determined. Meier’s signature medium is white enamel, so naturally the building permit insists that the museum’s sheathing be of stone and definitely not white. Meier is also at odds with John Walsh, who is to be the museum’s director. As architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable puts it — in the film — if you leave the designing of a museum solely to the architect, the paintings will suffer and if you leave it solely to the museum director, the architecture will suffer. Why this must be isn’t clear, but she says it with such authority that it seems not only true but obvious.
The people from the Getty Fund mediate between the architect and the museum guy, leaning toward the latter whose suggestions tend to be practical, while Meier aims for the visionary. At any rate, it’s a battle without visible rage -- the participants are much too civilized -- just many frozen smiles and polite countersuggestions.
The nearest we come to a heated moment is when the artist Robert Irwin is brought in to devise a garden which is to be part of the complex. Meier feels that Irwin is introducing a dissonant element to his scheme and offers several rather woolly objections, to which Irwin responds with a firm "Bullshit!" Unfortunately, he looks so pleased with himself at having said something naughty that the momentary tension quickly dribbles away.
Somehow, from these continually at-odds viewpoints, a very impressive-looking building emerges. And somehow, from this rather lackluster material, three documentarians have cobbled an insightful film about the mystery of how things get done.