Sketches of Frank Gehry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2006, 12:00am

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Director: Sydney Pollack

The film: It's easy to be sceptical of Sketches of Frank Gehry as an objective overview of one of the most controversial architects of modern times.

Director Sydney Pollack is a long-time friend of Gehry (below), and the views of the architect's admirers overwhelm those of his detractors, and Pollack himself features prominently in the film.

What saves Sketches of Frank Gehry is the man himself. Of course, Gehry's idiosyncratic designs already make intriguing viewing - one can't help but marvel at the bizarre yet strangely mesmerising spaces at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, or his own home. But it's Gehry's mix of ruthlessness and self-effacement that shines through, someone who would jokingly insist that 'things have to be crankier' to be good, and after finishing a model, exclaims, 'It's so stupid-looking, it's great' - and then raises his arms in a childlike act of triumph.

To his credit, Pollack strives to steer Sketches clear of being merely a showcase of Gehry's architectural gems - which would render the piece either a superficially visual or, on the other extreme, a hard-to-fathom thesis about the architect's aesthetics.

There were many a conversation in Gehry's home, studio and car, unfurling anecdotes that run from his birth through his name change - he was born Goldberg, and was asked to change his surname by his first wife - all the way to his working relationship with his employees (who attend to some of Gehry's unending stream of eccentric ideas and off- the-cuff alterations with a mix of admiration and acquiescence).

And then there were the army of supporters and critics: while more than expected, the views of Ed Ruscha and Philip Johnson trumpets Gehry's deeds, while Hal Foster - an advocate of a 'post-modernism of resistance', who deems Gehry's emphasis on loud, gaudy design as merely kitsch and stylistically reactionary - lambasts Gehry's work as spectacles that are excessive gestures void of meaning.

But the last word goes to Gehry's kindred spirit in visual art, the perennially brash Julian Schnabel: draped in a bathrobe and his hand cradling a glass of liquor, he defends Gehry by saying 'it would be like going to see Apocalypse Now and saying Robert Duvall was over the top'.

The extras: An interesting question-and-answer session between Pollack and Alexander Payne (director of Election and Sideways) with Pollack explaining his own appearance in the film (he claims he doesn't know one can use jump cuts in a documentary - and the second camera operator put him in the cutaways) and further talks up Gehry's work.

The verdict: While not exactly an illuminating analysis of Gehry's legacy, Sketches still provides an interesting peek into one of the most controversial creative minds of the modern age.