A documentary about an architect has an uphill battle finding an audience, because for one thing it’s a documentary, and for another thing it’s about an architect. I mean, come on.
But “Sketches of Frank Gehry” is a spiffy little doc, directed by longtime filmmaker/first-time documentarian Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie,” “The Firm”), who has been friends with the iconoclast for several years. It reveals a little about an architect’s craft and thought process, but mostly it’s about Gehry himself, the man, the myth, the legend.
“What’s so hot about Frank Gehry?” Pollack asks in the opening narration, anticipating the average viewer’s skepticism about the purpose of such a movie. “What’s the big deal?”
The buildings Gehry has designed are the best answer to that question, and Pollack shows plenty of them, including his masterpiece, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. (I refer you to his Wikipedia page, which has pictures of some buildings and links to many more.) While most architects deal with straight lines and easily defined geometric shapes, Gehry favors bizarre curves, twists and oddly proportioned shapes, an exciting blend of form and function. A regular building is a police artist’s sketch. A Frank Gehry building is a Picasso painting.
Gehry himself, born Ephraim Goldberg in 1929 (he changed to the less Jewish “Gehry” in the ’50s at the behest of his then-wife), comes across as a garrulous, likable old crank, not the loony eccentric you’d expect from viewing his work. He’s pragmatic and realistic about his designs and the way they’re perceived, mindful of his critics (though he tries not to be) and always aware that a building must be useful in addition to being beautiful.
The film itself is straightforward and functional, following Gehry around in his work but avoiding any particular “plot.” (An interesting idea might have been to document Gehry’s life from the time he conceives a building until the time it’s actually constructed, but I suppose that would have taken years.) We see him build scale models with his assistants, while interviews with admirers (and even a detractor or two) fill out the details.
There are curious omissions: Gehry’s second wife is mentioned a few times and said to be an important factor in Gehry’s life and work. Yet she is never shown. Is she dead? If she’s alive, why isn’t she interviewed? The same goes for Gehry’s children, of which he has at least two. Where are they? Pollack is remiss in leaving these threads dangling.
Otherwise, he does an adequate job portraying Gehry and his buildings and the passion that goes into creating them. Even at a scant 83 minutes, I wonder if it’s too long to hold a layperson’s interest (I know mine flagged occasionally), but overall it’s a great deal more entertaining than you’d expect a documentary about an architect to be.
B (1 hr., 23 min.; )