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Sketches of Frank Gehry
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Luckily, not one of those Kate-Winslet-in-"Titanic" deals"
4 stars

Although I must admit that I never thought about it until recently, the worlds of filmmaking and architecture are quite similar. Both start with ideas that are jotted down on paper. Both require the work of hundreds of individuals to transform them from a mere scribble into a finished product. And despite the considerable efforts of those hundreds of people who contributed their time and labor, those finished products tend to be regarded by many as the work of only one person–the director and the architect. This similarity, which seems more and more obvious the longer I think about it, is the launching point for “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” a new documentary in which a well-known figure in the world of cinema takes a look at the life and work of an equally well-known architect with intriguing and generally entertaining results

The filmmaker in question is Sydney Pollack, the man behind such slick and popular entertainments as “Tootsie,” “Out of Africa” and “The Firm” and the architect is Frank Gehry, the man behind such slick and popular structures as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Armed with an ever-present video camera, Pollack talks to Gehry about his life, career and the thought processes that go into both. We learn, for example, that he started off as a conventional designer of buildings until he decided that he could no longer design such works-for-hire without going mad and began creating more unique visions, starting with a new house that he built around the structure of the home that was currently occupying the space. As the film looks at some of his more notable structures, friends and acquaintances (including Dennis Hopper, Mike Ovitz, Michael Eisner and, inexplicably, Bob Geldof) talk about his work while Pollack, who admits to having no working knowledge about either architecture or documentary filmmaking (this is his first such effort), probes around to find out what makes his work so special.

Although it probably helps viewers without a working knowledge of architecture to have someone just as ignorant about the subject behind the camera, it means that the film doesn’t really delve into Gehry’s work in a way that would explain what sets it apart (or unites it) with other contemporary architects. Pollack, possibly because he is a longtime friend of Gehry’s, also prefers to gloss over any possible opinion of the work that isn’t the highest praise–a couple of naysaying critics are briefly trotted out but their comments are essentially ignored in the rush to get to the next celebrity testimonial, most of which are essentially useless (although Julian Schnabel gets enormous laughs before even opening his mouth just by the way he sits in front of the camera). I would have liked to have seen Gehry’s life and work placed in a larger context and I suspect that many others watching the film will feel the same way.<

At the same time, I still found myself reasonably interested in the film for a couple of reasons. For starters, knowing practically nothing of Gehry’s work, I was interested in watching him in the initial planning stages of a new work–sitting there with cardboard and scissors like a kid at play–and cheerfully tossing all the work away and starting over again if it just isn’t working out. I also liked the style that Pollack brings to the material–after years of making glossy and utterly antiseptic works (efforts like “Havana” and “Sabrina” feel as if they have never even been touched by human hands), the loose and personal touch, combined with the appealingly rough visual style, demonstrates that he can make an interesting film without all of the slick trappings that he has utilized over the years.

“Sketches of Frank Gehry” is not a perfect documentary and I suspect that it would probably look better on television as a PBS special. That said, it is an interesting one and the on-screen combination of Gehry and Pollack make for an intriguing pairing, especially when they discuss the difference between aesthetic difference and simple neurosis. Though a little more depth would have been appreciated, there is just enough of it on display in this film to inspire those to do what I did and begin looking up Gehry and his work for themselves.

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originally posted: 06/09/06 15:08:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

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  12-May-2006 (PG-13)
  DVD: 22-Aug-2006



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