Sketches of Frank Gehry

dir: Sydney Pollock
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Friends making documentaries about friends sounds like mutual masturbation, but it can work, if you’re into that sort of thing. Your interest level in this movie is pretty much dictated by whether you can enjoy a doco about a famous architect who has designed some pretty kooky buildings. Or not. My guess is that a lot of eyes glaze over before you even finish saying the word architectu….zzzzz

Can you really imagine something as staggeringly dull as a doco about an architect? Unless it’s the architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, maybe, or the architect of some badly negligent buildings that fall down and kill people. Otherwise it’s a date with dullsville, you’d be forced to think. Well, force yourself to think a little more, ya deadbeat.

Frank Gehry has architected up some pretty freaky looking buildings. Even if his name doesn’t ring any of your bells, you’ve probably seen images of his crazy constructions all the same. I can’t pretend I knew anything about the guy beyond images of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that I’d seen, and the kooky episode of The Simpsons where Gehry guest stars and designs a new building for Springfield that gets turned into a surrealist prison. Snitch 4 Life indeed.

Further to that, the great man designs the building by scrunching up a piece of paper that becomes the blueprint for the whole shemozzle. Anyone who’s ever seen one of his buildings knows how arbitrarily chaotic they look, and through this doco they can see the inspired process he and his crew go through to get to the magical final design.

It’s very light, very easy-going, and Pollock and Gehry, old friends from way back, chat like old friends rather than as interviewer and subject. This isn’t a confrontational doco attacking the guy and his treatment of prostitutes, or his hundreds of illegitimate syphilitic children, or rampant drug use and multiple arrests. It’s not that kind of doco.

Gehry comes across as a nice guy, a perfectionist lacking in self-confidence for most of his life. He has that mixture of arrogance and insecurity common to most of us, but the difference between most of us and him is that he has dedicated his life to making some very distinctive and memorable buildings, above and beyond any personal or commercial considerations.

And what the hell have you achieved lately, huh?

I’m not going to pretend watching the doco means I now understand how he designs buildings or why he designs them the way he does, but it’s given me enough of an inkling of the process so that I don’t just believe he’s making this shit up as he goes along.

It’s a cursory view of a man’s life, but it doesn’t need to be any deeper than it is. He’s a bit of a strange character, but he gets enough of a chance to get across the peculiar humanism that informs his work. You get the impression that he finds too many right angles and points inhuman, but his overall cubist approach to putting together these monstrosities still seems to be more based on inspiration than some clearly defined precepts.

As easygoing as Gehry is Pollock himself, who often appears in shot as well. He has stated that he found the concept of appearing in the documentary seemed repellent to him, because it smacked of arrogance and self-aggrandisement, but it seems perfectly natural in this context. They are long term friends after all, and they have that comfortable rapport you really want in a doco whose approach isn’t adversarial.

Architecture is one of those aspects of modern life that surrounds those of us who live in or near buildings, which is practically anyone that has access to this review, but we are oblivious most of the time to it. Like all art, we either know whether we like or don’t like it, or we really couldn’t care less about.

A doco about an architect has to be pretty interesting in and of itself to hold our attention, either than or the actual architecture the person is responsible for has to be interesting. The buildings created by Gehry are about as interesting as it gets, but that alone doesn’t make for a fascinating doco, one which you watch saying “Oooo, aaaahh” every four seconds on average.

I could have done without pretentious artist / director / wanker Julian Schnabel wanking on about Frank Gehry like he’s heard of Frank Gehry whilst swanning about in a bathrobe, but some of the other people are pretty interesting. Legendary (now dead) architect Phillip Johnson, who has designed more imposing skyscrapers in the States and around the world than you’ve had hits of crystal meth, even gets a look in, mentioning the sheer wonderfulness of Gehry. He and Gehry could never have been friends, but it’s nice to see him all the same. They were polar opposites in terms of their work; it’d be like Michelangelo having genuine praise for Jackson Pollock. Possible, but unlikely.

We get to see a bit of Gehry’s process as well. He has a team of people who bring his visions to light, made up of a group of youngish looking guys who make the abstract a reality with the aid of cardboard modelling and far more complicated computer applications. It’s still fascinating to see how Gehry needs to see it constructed in front of him before it can become real for him, when the rest of the world has shifted to AutoCAD or whatever equivalents they now use.

He’s still a 20th century guy, with a unique sense of how things should look. The doco also delivers plenty of shots capturing the amazing look of many of the buildings he’s responsible for, to the ever so tasteful accompaniment of the Philip Glass musical score. It’s like a moving coffee book, to be honest, but that’s not always a bad thing.

The glimmers of insight into his life and personality make for mildly interesting/amusing moments, such as the fact that Gehry has his analyst of many decades (the wonderfully named Milton Wexler) talk to camera about their analysis together (!) And Gehry, though cagey about many parts of his life, is disarmingly charming in talking about himself. He may be an intensely arrogant and competitive man, but he doesn’t come across as such during the movie.

It veers ever so close to peering deeper under the surface, such as when Gehry almost elaborates upon the perceived anti-Semitism that encouraged him to change his name, but Pollock never really probes or questions to provoke responses, he just goes along with whatever Gehry is comfortable with. It’s a tad frustrating.

Sure, there’s nothing more bourgeois than a doco about architecture, but I can think of plenty of worse ways to spend 80 minutes. The footage of the Guggenheim in Bilbao is worth the price of admission alone.

Still, they never really explain how he gets away with these projects. The man’s got a lot of balls, that’s absolutely without doubt.

7 times you feel like a wanker just for admitting that you watched a documentary about architecture out of 10

“It’s about finding that small percentage of space in the commercial world where you can make a difference.” – Sketches of Frank Gehry