- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Veteran filmmaker Sydney Pollack opens his first documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” by asking the obvious about his architect friend: “What’s all the fuss about?” For those who have long wondered why this designer of crumpled metal buildings is such a big deal, you’ll have to take the word of the Hollywood moguls and celebrities who gush about Mr. Gehry’s genius throughout this superficial movie.

Missing something essential — like all too many films on architecture — “Sketches” glosses over the reasons for Mr. Gehry’s well-deserved reputation as an innovator: the theatrical spaces of his eccentric buildings. Houses, museums, concert hall are presented for the most part as beautiful, still photos of big sculptures with people walking by. That’s a shame because film has the potential to capture the three-dimensional power of architecture, a key to understanding why Mr. Gehry’s unorthodox structures are so appealing.

Mr. Pollack instead spends most of the film hunting for elusive clues to the architect’s creative process, following him around with a hand-held camera. We watch as Mr. Gehry and his partner Craig Webb cut and tape pieces of paper onto a building model. “Let’s be irritated by it, and then we’ll figure out what to do,” Mr. Gehry says. Pointing to a shape on one end, he pronounces, “This has to get crankier.”

As if to mirror our own reaction, Mr. Pollack asks incredulously, “Crankier?” The self-conscious scene only reinforces the stereotype of the architect as an arbitrary form-maker.

Though the reasons for his free-flowing curves are never fully explained, Mr. Gehry notes their sources of inspiration. The work of Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, he says, was an early influence. He also admires the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Jasper Johns and feels a kinship with artists, including buddies Chuck Arnoldi and Ed Ruscha, who offer some of the more perceptive comments about their friend’s sculptural approach.

As a subject, Mr. Gehry is a sympathetic presence on-screen, a Woody Allen-ish character who expresses self-doubts about his work. “I’m always scared that I’m not going to know what to do,” he says of starting a project.

A late bloomer, he drove a truck before studying architecture and started his career designing shopping centers for the Columbia, Md.-based Rouse Co. The architect was well into his 50s when he began receiving national attention for turning chain link and metal into cubist houses.

Mr. Pollack and Mr. Gehry have known each other for decades, and the two banter comfortably about artistic expressiveness within their respective disciplines. Their friendship allows the shy architect to open up about his life and career struggles. He talks about growing up in Toronto, changing his name from Goldberg to Gehry at the urging of his ex-wife, marrying his second wife and spending 35 years in therapy. Neither wives nor children appear on camera, but his shrink, Milton Wexler, is interviewed extensively. So much for patient-doctor confidentiality.

In between his pal’s selective reminiscences, Mr. Pollack inserts fawning commentary from the architect’s friends, colleagues and clients, including entertainment bigwigs Michael Eisner, Barry Diller and Mike Ovitz.

Heaping on more praise is rock star Bob Geldof, who relates how he became a Gehry fan after seeing Mr. Gehry’s Vitra showroom in Weil am Rhein, Germany, while on tour.

Artist Julian Schnabel leaves a lasting impression while opining about Mr. Gehry’s masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Wearing a bathrobe and sunglasses, he reclines on a gilded chair with a glass of cognac in one hand. “If it does compete with the art,” Mr. Schnabel says of the aggressively curvaceous museum, “maybe that art isn’t good enough.”

The only naysayer in the bunch is Hal Foster, a nerdy academic from Princeton who dismisses the Bilbao Guggenheim as “spectacle” and “brand.” His negative comments quickly dissipate within all the positive spin.

Toward the end of the film, Mr. Pollack gently confronts his chum about criticism of his work as ugly and formulaic. Mr. Gehry says he doesn’t buy it but then admits he doesn’t like his finished buildings. “I see all the things I should have done,” he says.

Though he appears modest and self-deprecating, the architect admits that he is “ambitious, eager and competitive” in the extreme. Mr. Gehry also is savvy enough to persuade a respected movie director to enshrine his legend with this all-too-flattering film.

**

TITLE: “Sketches of Frank Gehry”

RATING: PG-13 (Brief strong language)

CREDITS: Directed by Sydney Pollack

RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/

sketchesoffrankgehry/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

Bilbao museum hooked filmmaker

“I was never a big architecture nut,” says movie director Sydney Pollack. “I don’t recall a building that ever moved me except for maybe a cathedral in France or Italy.” What led the 71-year-old filmmaker to make “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” after years of prodding by his longtime friend Mr. Gehry, was a 1997 visit to the architect’s titanium-clad Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. “Seeing this museum had a real emotional impact on me,” he said by telephone from Los Angeles.

Filming of the documentary started in 2000 and intermittently continued “when I would get a weekend” between other projects, he says. To make Mr. Gehry feel comfortable in front of the camera, Mr. Pollack did most of the shooting and interviewing himself. Producer Ultan Guilfoyle operated a second camera, often including the director in the frame. “I didn’t intend to put myself in the film initially,” says Mr. Pollack, who has acted in his movies, “but the editor found the dialogue interesting and kept putting me back in.”

Before starting “Sketches,” Mr. Pollack studied recent architecture documentaries, including “My Architect” on Louis Kahn and “Antonio Gaudi,” but he says, “They weren’t helpful for me. I wanted to get at the creative process.”

How does making his first nonfiction film compare to directing such features as “Tootsie,” “Out of Africa” and “The Firm”? “It’s a freer form, more improvisational,” he says. With the release of his film on Mr. Gehry, the filmmaker says he is being asked to make more documentaries but has no plans to do so.


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