“This is so stupid looking, it’s great!” the diminutive architect exclaims early on in Sketches of Frank Gehry, thrusting his hands in the air like a five-year-old, the exuberance of inspiration plastered all over a face so cheek-pinchingly cute and Tom Bosley–ish you want to call him “Mr. G.” Gehry’s designs may indeed often be stupid (“Some of his buildings are extremely ugly,” notes one persnickety critic), but despite all the grotesque, garish fun houses of titanium and glass, his work also radiates a peculiar warmth and friendliness. Unlike, say, Freedom Tower overlord Daniel Libeskind, whose attempts at sentiment come off about as soft and subtle as the rigid rectangles of his horn-rim glasses, Gehry can be intimidating in scope yet warm and fuzzy in feeling. His shiny, unduutf8g surfaces at times seem downright … feminine.
That mix of abrupt showman’s flash and pacifying softness is probably what has made the Toronto-born, LA-based Gehry the world’s most famous and popular living architect. The 77-year-old celebrity magnet (Brad Pitt is obsessed) is so in demand, he’s even started designing jewelry. Yes, Frank Gehry is the People’s Architect, so it’s no surprise an admitted architecture novice has created the first filmic retrospective of his work.
Actually, Sydney Pollack probably knows more than he lets on — he and Gehry have been close friends for decades, after all. Both men admitted to each other early in the friendship that they felt they were “faking it” in their respective careers. Gehry, however, is much more forthright about a professional rivalry between the two. “We’re in a different business, but I probably still compete with you,” he tells Pollack with a matter-of-fact chuckle. Pollack’s egomania, like his art, is much more demure: He asserts that the key to his success is finding a suitable niche within the confines of crass Hollywood commercialism. In other words, playing by the rules.
Clearly Gehry is the maverick (compare The Interpreter to the Vitra Furniture Museum, for instance). The relationship between the two men — their professional jealousies, the push-pull of commerce in their respective muddied art forms, and how that tension has been realized in their work — is probably the most interesting aspect of Sketches of Frank Gehry. Unfortunately, it’s barely explored, perhaps because the incessantly safe Pollack refuses to insert himself into the narrative in any meaningful way.
Instead, we’re subjected to various experts and other talking heads arguing the merits of Gehry’s work — the impossible claptrap of “What is art?” and “What is good art?” If it weren’t for the obnoxious, self-congratulatory, bathrobe-and-snifter-sporting Julian Schnabel, there’d be no end to the self-serious babble. When asked about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Schnabel crudely snorts that it makes him want to “stick [his] stuff in there.”
Gehry’s sketches — fluid, Matisse-like squiggles that stand in stark contrast to the imposing final products — make for effective intertitles, but the montages of pretty buildings set to classical music become downright coma inducing after a while. Better are the passages featuring Gehry’s close friend and analyst of 35 years, Milton Wexler, and Gehry himself discussing his relationship with cuckolding first wife Berta. It was Berta who talked him into changing his name, and for many years he was so bereft he still introduced himself by saying, “I’m Frank Gehry. It used to be Goldberg.” (Gehry does, however, admit that anti-Semitism probably caused much of his initial struggle in the business.)
If Pollack really wanted to focus on Gehry’s artistic process, why not follow one project through from inception to completion rather than offer circumspect glimpses — the titular sketches — of Gehry’s work? Surely the filmmaker, although a documentary neophyte, understands that drama is the essence of nonfiction storytelling too? It’s hard to believe it took him a reported five years to cobble together this underwhelming footage. (Easier to believe: The stuffy Sketches was coproduced by New York PBS affiliate WNET.) Sketches of Frank Gehry isn’t necessarily a bad film — it more or less meets the requisite documentary building codes. But no one is going to stop and marvel at its sheer audacity or be moved by its form. Perhaps next time the architect himself should design his own doc. He could call it Fully Realized Frank Gehry, and it would be unafraid to look stupid. And wouldn’t that be great. SFBG
SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY
Embarcadero Center Cinema
1 Embarcadero Center, promenade level, SF
1115 Solano, Albany
For showtimes, go to www.sfbg.com