Washington City Paper | June 2, 2006
Major architects, like big-time film directors, are artists who make business. Their work is too expensive to proceed without backers, and these backers are forever trying to cut the budget or compromise the vision. That gives director Sydney Pollack and architect Frank Gehry, Pollack’s longtime pal and the subject of his first documentary, plenty to talk about in Sketches of Frank Gehry, a laid-back exercise in hagiography. “I think of him as a writer-director,” says Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz of Gehry. Clearly, the Canadian-born architectural showman couldn’t have found a better place to land than Los Angeles.

In addition to Ovitz, there’s his former pal (and Disney boss) Michael Eisner, who gave Gehry some high-profile gigs, as well as fellow entertainment exec Barry Diller, bad-boy-actor-turned-art-collector Dennis Hopper, and—not exactly Hollywood, but close enough—artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel and punker-turned-pop-activist Bob Geldof. Near the film’s end, Pollack interjects footage of the 2003 opening of L.A.’s Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, at which the architect is showered with glittery confetti. It’s a gleefully vulgar moment that says much about the appeal of Gehry’s shiny, outsized monuments.

Pollack, who appears onscreen framing shots with his video camera, lets Gehry tells his life story: a rough childhood, a night-school education while working as a truck driver, and the change of his name from Goldberg, which he attributes to his first wife: “I was pussy-whipped,” Gehry explains, deflecting the implication that he’s a self-hating Jew with a carefully timed burst of misogyny. The director also relies on his subject to explain his process, which includes the spidery sketches of the film’s title, as well as much futzing with silver construction paper. Gehry doesn’t know how to use computers, explains one of his assistants. But the curvilinear shapes and bulbous forms of the architect’s breakthrough work couldn’t be drawn or built without CATIA, an aerospace program whose centrality is ignored in favor of the visual possibilities of Gehry’s cutting, placing, and moving pieces of paper.

Sketches of Frank Gehry is a friendly discussion, not an evaluation, but Pollack bows in the direction of objectivity by acknowledging that the architect has his detractors. Princeton professor Hal Foster suggests that Gehry’s museums upstage the art they contain, and design theorist Charles Jencks, a Gehry friend, admits that some of the architect’s work is “very ugly.” The filmmaker’s approach is resolutely visual and anecdotal, so he turns from Gehry’s remark that his work has been called “logotecture” to a montage of print criticism that focuses, meaninglessly, on close-ups on individual phrases and words.

Pollack clearly made the movie he intended, a relaxed tribute to a famous friend and a small-crew alternative to his usual big-budget projects. There are moments, though, that point in the untaken direction of a more interesting film. Most notably, Pollack interviews Peter Lewis, whose aborted collaboration with Gehry has already been the subject of a Gehry-boosting 2003 documentary, A Constructive Madness. The astonishingly indulgent Lewis paid the architect $6 million over 12 years to design a house that was never built and whose ultimate price tag was an estimated $82 million. Over time, Lewis lost interest in having such a large home—which, he says, was turning into a museum.

Pollack presents this as a mildly amusing anecdote, but it’s actually quite telling. For grandiose postmodern architects like Gehry, every building becomes a museum: a signature piece that means to upstage everything in town. Sketches of Frank Gehry may present its hero as an easygoing doodler, but his work is essentially megalomaniacal. It’s the Hollywood blockbuster in undulating titanium, overwhelming everything in its path in the cause of, well, overwhelming everything in its path.

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