by Jeff Meyers
If the world of architecture has a rock star, it's Frank Gehry. Considered a revolutionary by many, his jutting angles and bewildering slopes have tested the limits of construction and taste. His unruly sculptural approach challenges the notion that form must follow function, and he evokes strong reactions you either love Frank Gehry or you loathe him.
This tension between artistic vision and commercial necessity makes Sydney Pollack an inspired choice as a documentarian of Gehry's work. By his own admission, Pollack knows very little about architecture and that's what makes this cinematic experiment so sincere. A respected Hollywood director (The Interpreter, Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie), Pollack understands the constraints that industry can put on creativity. Capitalizing on his longtime friendship with the celebrated architect, Pollack creates a casual intimacy that reveals much about Gehry's process and personality.
Deliberately avoiding Gehry's personal life, Pollack offers a captivating primer on the architect's convictions and iconoclastic career. An in-depth examination of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain regarded by some as one of the most original works in modern architecture reveals the building's startling beauty and grandeur while revealing the means behind Gehry's vision.
From his desire to challenge architecture's most stilted traditions to the way visual associations influence Gehry's final concepts, Pollack captures some terrific interludes of the architect at work. It's surprisingly engrossing to watch Gehry cut and paste scraps of silver construction paper as he makes instinctual decisions about a structure that will spring from steel beams and corrugated metal.
Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Gehry is a down-to-earth and unlikely genius. A demonstration how a painting by Hieronymus Bosch influenced his design of Israel's Museum of Tolerance, currently under construction, leaves little doubt the man deserves his reputation. Where Sketches fails, however, is in the depths of its inquiry. You'd think the director's decades-long friendship with Gehry would permit him to explore the most intriguing aspects of the architect's life: his disastrous first marriage, the years of anger issues, the rationale behind his name change (from Goldberg) and the failures of his early career. Unfortunately, these important details rate little more than a passing remark. Detractors of Gehry's work (and there are many) are pushed to the sidelines. Pollack's sole interview with a critic Princeton University professor Hal Foster comes off as cursory and calculated. Foster's smug argument that Gehry's buildings seek to overshadow the art they're intended to display is used as a setup for artist Julian Schnabel's bitchy reply: "If they do compete with the art, maybe that art isn't good enough."
Sketches spends way too much time on fawning testimonials from TV execs Michael Eisner, Barry Diller and Michael Ovitz. Their observations are shallow and oddly self-congratulatory; as if their ability to recognize Gehry's genius was proof of their own genius. Similarly, an interview with Gehry's longtime therapist Milton Wexler, is as unrevealing as it is perplexing. What about doctor-patient confidentiality?
Nevertheless, as a first stab at a documentary, Pollack delivers something worth watching. His enthusiasm and an infectiously inquisitive tone paint a sincere and stimulating portrait of this defiantly unconventional artist. To wit, one of the most revealing moments in the film shows Gehry adding a final oddball touch to one of his models then musing, "That is so stupid-looking, it's great," followed by a triumphant, "Yeeee-ah!"
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.