Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks his daughter has the makings of a great architect, at least with Legos.
"I look at him as a hyphenate. I look at him as a writer-director. Someone who sits down, conceives of something, thinks it up, which is the blank piece of paper in front of him—and then has the ability to execute it into a visual image."—Michael Ovitz, on Frank Gehry
In this new renaissance of the documentary, everybody thinks they can make a movie about the real world. Take Sydney Pollack. I have no doubts that Pollack is a nice guy. He makes comfortably mainstream movies as an established Hollywood director. Even when his movies seem good at first (like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? or Tootsie), for a few years, they don't age so well. Pollack himself is a decent character actor (he is particularly good in Eyes Wide Shut, a real-life movie director standing in for the manipulative Kubrick behind the camera), but his own films, for all their top-tier talent and big budgets, are prosaic.
Still, it was a bit of a surprise to hear that Pollack wanted to try his hand at a documentary. Then, the surprise turned to skepticism when it became clear that the reason for Sketches of Frank Gehry was to lionize one of Pollack's dear friends. I probably come across here as a little cynical. I have long been an admirer of Gehry's work, particularly his wildly off-kilter Guggenheim Museum in Spain and his warped Disney Concert Hall. His buildings swing, curve, flirt with kitsch. He has a great sense of humor (he has a weird obsession with fish), but has been criticized for going overboard with whimsy, a charge often leveled against the entire deconstructionist movement in architecture.
Our first impressions of Gehry in the film are one of disorganization: a nervous, shapeless sketch and Gehry's voice telling us about his inability to start projects. He gets excited as a "stupid looking" model whipped together through pure inspiration. So, Gehry is a crazy genius? A maverick in the world of architecture?
Pollack makes no bones about his role in this story. He stands in the frame with Gehry; he talks openly about his friendship with Gehry. He tries to make it clear that this is all about Gehry. But it is really about Pollack too. This is Pollack as both director and actor, playing the role of Gehry's Boswell. In fact, the official title of the film is Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack. Ouch. Still, we meet celebrities who admire our hero's architecture (so that's where Bob Geldof has been all this time!), powerful friends who can afford to commission work from him (Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz), and even his therapist. Everybody thinks he is wonderful. Although when Eisner cheerfully describes the hockey rink he commissioned from Gehry as looking like "breasts," you start to wonder…
The truth is, even by the end of Sketches of Frank Gehry, you will continue to wonder. What makes this guy so inventive and daring in his designs? Who knows? Even Pollack just goes along for the ride. The film approaches hagiography, making Gehry out to be a free spirit who bounces from masterpiece to masterpiece, while lesser artists and friends trail along and sway to the music he makes. But besides awe, the film never tries to get inside Gehry or even show his flaws. Midway through the film, we finally get some token criticism in the form of an architecture critic who remains "ambivalent" about Gehry's work. It is a fairly toothless attack. The worst thing he can say is that Gehry gives clients too much of what they want. Later, Gehry dismisses criticism that he has started repeating himself. He has flashes of egotism (he complains about his colleagues being too bound by rules), but they never come across as much more than good humored ribbing.
He says that the source of his designs is pure inspiration. Friends and colleagues tap dance around anything more psychological: his egotism, his anxiety over his Jewish identity, his need to please his public. Gehry's inner life does not seem as complicated as, say, Frank Lloyd Wright—and I am not advocating hauling out Freud to make sense of that whole fish business—but the film avoids depth for the other extreme.
Maybe this is really more about Sydney Pollack. Pollack follows his old friend as if trying to catch a glimpse of real genius. A respectable but not great artist himself, Pollack might be feeling inadequate, shadowed by another artist for whom inspiration comes so easily. How could anybody not look back on work like Random Hearts or Havana without asking, "What does that guy have that I don't?" But the distance he puts between us and Gehry's mind suggests that he might not really want to know after all.
The only extra is a half-hour interview with Pollack by fellow director Alexander Payne (followed by a brief q&a from the audience). Payne overpraises the movie (he compares it to Clouzot's energetic The Mystery of Picasso), perhaps in the same way that Pollack overpraises Gehry. But Pollack is quite candid about how much he learned about documentary filmmaking on the fly. His genuine enthusiasm and modesty about his own relationship to Gehry (again, like a Boswell who feels he is in the shadow of a greater man) reflects the lack of pretension in the feature itself. For all its other flaws, Sketches of Frank Gehry is at least not pretentious in its celebration of artistic genius.
While a pleasant hour and a half, Sketches of Frank Gehry is exactly what its title suggests: a doodle that reveals the contours of a beautiful work of art, without the details or polish that might illuminate the subject being drawn.
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