In “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” director Sydney Pollack films buildings with the same sensuality he brings to on-screen lovers — tracing the surfaces and contours as if they were cheekbones or eyelids, noting the way walls interlock like arms in ecstatic embrace. During his 40-year career, the creator of such landmark works of American cinema as 1973’s “The Way We Were” and “Out of Africa,” for which he won an Oscar in 1985, had never made a documentary. That was until good friend and world-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry asked him to do one on him. “But I don’t know anything about architecture,” says Pollack in the film. “That’s why you’re perfect for the job,” retorts Gehry. And so began a beautiful project.

Gehry was originally from Canada and studied architecture in Southern California. From the time he opened his own firm at age 34 until he won the Pritzker Award (the Nobel Prize of architecture) at age 60, Gehry was more or less overlooked by the American architectural world. Now, at 77, his name is one of its most treasured. Gehry’s works are distinguished by an almost naive, childlike delight in shape and form. Sculpturesque, they’re seemingly less functional than “serious architecture”; Gehry is famed for valuing form over function, or rather for erasing the boundaries between the two. His works can be seen the globe over, from Kobe to Scotland and more recently in Tiffany’s jewelry designs.

But “Sketches” shows that even Gehry — often described as “blessed” for the way he unleashes his personality on buildings — must practice restraint occasionally. One memorable conversation between Pollack (who’s not at all camera-shy here) and Gehry occurs when they share a mutual melancholy about finding a creative niche of self-expression in largely client-dictated projects (“It’s so uphill, so much of the time!” says Pollack. Or was it Gehry?). Also, like some movies, architecture takes years to complete, and Gehry sighs that by the time a work is close to being finished, “I don’t like it anymore.”

Sketches of Frank Gehry
Director Sydney Pollack
Run Time 84 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens June 2, 2007

Evidence of creative angst, however, disappears before the big-hearted humanity and textural uniqueness of works like the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, the DG Bank in Berlin, the “Fish” in Barcelona and a private residence Gehry built for a friend afflicted with cancer, which he did pro bono. Gehry’s approach is deceptively simple: Pollack shows him making elegant but indecipherable calligraphic scrawls in a sketchbook — scrawls that in the next frame emerge as mockups or sophisticated 3-D computer graphics (Gehry himself is computer illiterate and leaves that to his associates). The mockups are wondrous things made of cardboard and tape; Gehry hovers over the table with a pair of scissors like an intent 8-year-old, and tosses out remarks like “See, I don’t like this surface here — it’s boring.” A trusted associate nods, agrees, and suggests they shape that piece of paper like an accordion. Gehry pauses and says, “Yeah, that’s better. Mmmm. corrugated, yeah.”

Pollack’s approach is something similar; he hangs around with a steadicam, accompanies Gehry in his car and asks questions. The two have a great rapport, but the relationship is defined by a respectful distance. Pollack clearly thinks Gehry is a genius, but never voices overt praise, leaving that to Gehry’s enthralled clients. Pollack scatters in some naysayers, but their comments are often cut short to make way for Gehry enthusiasts, like Dennis Hopper who lives in one of his creations; Michael Eisner, for whom Gehry built the Walt Disney Concert Hall; and Julian Schnabel (just voted best director at the Cannes Film Festival), who wraps himself in a white bathrobe and sits in a vacant lot to wax eloquent about the architect. The most entertaining is probably Bob Geldof, who professes to hate architects (“Architects have a lot to answer for. When you see an architect at a party, punch him in the nose!”) but says Gehry is an exception to the rule.

Indeed, you can’t think of anyone who would want to punch Gehry — a genial, teddy-bear figure whose words and expressions often reveal the startling, sparkling vision of a child prodigy who has never had to grow up and battle the demons of the real world. On the other hand, Pollack’s lens doesn’t avert its gaze when Gehry is irritable, and less attractive aspects of his personality rise to the surface like lumps. Not that Pollack treats these as flaws. To get inside the mind of the architect a little he interviews Milton Wexler, the architect’s trusted therapist for over three decades, who explains that Gehry desired therapy because he “wanted to change the world.” In order to do so, Wexler advised Gehry to “leave his wife or patch up the relationship somehow,” and on that same night Gehry walked out of his marriage. It brings a nice, Pollackesque twist to the whole thing.

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