The irresistible thing about SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY is how it takes the mystery of original vision and workings of the imagination behind it, effervescent and ineffable qualities, and translates them successfully into the confines of a documentary. That is not the only reason to see Sydney Pollack’s first crack at a documentary, but it is the most compelling one.
There are the usual quota of talking heads, including Gehry himself and his therapist, discussing Gehry the person. There are other talking heads talking about Gehry the artist, most notably an architecture critic from Princeton who finds much to dislike, though all of it seems to pertain to Gehry’s renown, not his vision. Interesting, sure. Illuminating, but of course, particularly that critic and the way it illustrates the contrarian streak in humankind that can sometimes be read as sour grapes. This is more than balanced by his admirers, including the movers and shakers such as Barry Diller and Michael Eisner who commissioned Gehry to let his fancy run free with the buildings he designed for them. One of the best shots in the film is of the Disney Music Center, a free-form and curly-cued tribute to the exuberance of music sitting cheek-by-jowl with the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, an iconic example of mid-20th Century architecture,. The former instantly and irrevocably renders the latter not just an obsolete and presumptuous static stack of stones, but also hopelessly inadequate as a place to celebrate the arts.
Pollack is as interested in the configurations of Gehry’s mind as he is with the products of his imagination. For all the loving studies of the buildings Gehry has designed with which the film is lavished, there is as much attention to the process that created them. Working with a small crew, sometimes only himself and his digital camera, Pollack observes Gehry at work, curving and folding bits of construction paper over and around a scale model and using words such as “cranky” to describe a wall when unsatisfied with the results. Gehry also offers guided tours of finished scale models, those approved and those rejected, during which he expounds on what was right, what was impossible to construct, and always how the light plays across the structure, becoming as integral a part of the finished product as the vibrant colors of titanium or the glass sheaths in which he enveloped them. Through all, there is Gehry’s child-like delight in it all, from first cut of paper to the finished building, which he may visit only one in his life.
The best moment in the film is when Gehry holds up a Renaissance painting by Bosch that depicts Christ with two companions. We see the group of figures and Gehry explains how he saw in them the ground plan for the Tolerance Museum in Jerusalem. It’s an “aha” moment that Pollack perfectly illustrates with diagrams to help we mere mortals share a glimpse of how Gehry’s mind works, seeing the same world as the rest of us, but an entirely different universe unique to Gehry. Pollack goes beyond this, considering the ancillary products of a mind that doesn’t think outside the box, but rather recreates the paradigm of the box itself, things such as Gehry walking away without looking back from a wildly successful career designing sprightly but safe things such as the Santa Monica Center in order to follow a muse that would lead him into bankruptcy more than once. Others might dream about it, some might consider it, some might try it and return to the fold, but Gehry, revealed through conversation as free-from as the Disney Center, details how it was as necessary a move for him as breathing is for the rest of us.
There is also the piquant juxtaposition of Gehry’s imagination and his appearance, which is deceptively ordinary with its beagle-like face, thinning hair, and thickening waist that belies what goes on behind the rather stylish glasses. There is none of the wasted energy of visible eccentricity a la Wright’s ubiquitous cape. And there is no flagrant ego, though he and others freely admit that he has one, as well as a burning ambition. It, like the buildings he designs, is manifested in totally original and unexpected ways, including making fans of his clients, even the one who spend $6 million over 12 years for designs for a home that was ultimately never built and who is happy to tell us that has no regrets about the process.
SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY more than covers the man’s life history from teachers that told him he had no talent to his self-deprecating assessment of one of his marriages. Yet it still leaves the audience wanting more of just watching Gehry fiddle with just one more model, or to wax rhapsodic in his oddly understated way about the use of light. Or even to let Pollack’s savvy camerawork let us walk in and around the final results, be it the Guggenheim in Bilbao or one of the odd crannies of Gehry’s own dining room, presented such that they seem the perfect external manifestation of being in this guy’s head.