Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sidney Pollack, "Sketches of Frank Gehry"

I mentioned the other day that I had picked up a pair of documentaries about architects. Today I watched the second one- Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006). What this film has in common with My Architect is that the director is close to his chosen subject. But unlike Nathaniel Kahn, Pollack has the opportunity to interact with a living participant. Apparently Sidney Pollack has been friends with Gehry for a number of years. For those of you who are not aware of Pollack, he has made a number of famous films including Tootsie (1982) Out of Africa (1985) The Way We Were (1973) and The Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). It is notable however, that the filmmaker had never directed a documentary previously. He claims that he was taken aback by Gehry's request to create a feature about him. Evidently Gehry had been approached by other folks who wanted to produce a picture about him, but he fell back on his trust in his friend. Although Pollack was inexperienced with the particular form, and admittedly knew little about art and architecture- he agreed to go ahead with the project.

Gehry is about as well known an architect as you will find in modern day America. He is famous for designing the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., the Dancing House in Prague, and his masterpiece- the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Interestingly the first building he became known for was his own residence in Santa Monica, CA. It seems that it was the design of this house that transformed him from an experimentalist in "paper architecture" to a player of import in the world of contemporary architecture. With his second wife Berta, he bought a bungalow and decided that he wanted to preserve its exterior. In order to make it his own, he built a new modern shell around the original house. His use of chain-link fencing and corrugated metal prefigured his later works. But those choices also resulted in a hint of the varying feedback his designs would provoke. Some of his neighbors were of the opinion that he had created an ugly monstrosity.

Although Gehry is often referred to by academics as a deconstructivist, he rejects the label. His style reminds some of a warped updating of the Cubist art movement of the early twentieth century. This might be an appropriate analogy, as Gehry himself has admitted to being a student of art history. In fact he claims his one true regret in life is that he never became a painter. Despite his belief that he has never created a truly "painterly" surface in his architecture, the reflections of the changing light playing off of his chosen materials tell a radically different story. Regardless, it is clear that Gehry has cast off the conventions of his medium. He is outspoken about his resentment for the "rules of architecture". Certainly he flouts them in such a flagrant manner that he has drawn significant criticism for doing so.

Pollack did a competent job in portraying the inner life and philosophies of his subject. Much of the footage consists of informal discussions between the director and architect during his daily life. The filmmaker was given remarkable access to the operations of Gehry's studio, and to the offices of his various clients. Interviews with prominent figures such as Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner and Dennis Hopper contribute additional interpretations of Gehry's personality and career. Naturally there is a downside to the close relationship between Gehry and Pollack. The latter is obviously careful to present the best side of his friend. Although one prominent critic is allowed to offer tepid criticism of Gehry's oeuvre, the film remains by-and-large monotone. Similarly there is very little insight into the way Gehry's personal life has affected him. No one from his family is invited to make an appearance.

Despite these flaws I still found Sketches of Frank Gehry satisfying and absorbing. Pollack's experience with the camera does indeed contribute to his ability to capture the magic of Gehry's creations. He only periodically interjects his own values into the film, and thus avoids the common documentarian mistake of becoming a distraction. The choices Pollack makes truly illuminate the quality of the work. If you want a considered debate about the merits of Gehry's contributions to modern design, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. There are plenty of people that consider Gehry buildings to be spectacles of extreme self-indulgence. There is always the chance that a Gehry design will overwhelm its very function and surroundings. But if you want to see the magic of the artist's imagination and unconstrained flights of fancy, then this is the film for you.

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