A light wisp of a documentary that’s gone into thin air before you know it, Sketches of Frank Gehry alternates between banal and stirring. Near the beginning, there’s a long, decidedly un-cinematic scene at Gehry’s firm, in which the famous architect and an associate or two, armed with scissors and silver cardstock, search for means to add textured lines to the model of a square box, for something to give the proposed chunk of building a trace of visual interest. But Sydney Pollack’s hand-held DV cameras can’t spin silk from the sow’s ear of the format used to distill these moments in another artist’s creative process. Later, when Pollack switches to impressionism in wide-angles, the picture – intermittently – lifts off.
The first ascent into the sublime comes with a slow, leftward pan from the living room to the kitchen of Gehry’s Santa Monica bungalow. The architect’s voice-over informs us that he thought the house was haunted when he first bought it, but if so, then the spirits lurking in the space should be the ghosts of cubism. Gehry refurbished with windows that rise into a roof, rectangular skylights adjoined by beams of wood, and it’s through this arched glass ceiling that, he notes with a sense of accomplishment, “You can see the moon in the wrong place.”
Pollack jumps from there to a montage of other private residences that Gehry designed, in such exotic locales as Thousand Oaks, California and Wayzata, Minnesota; the segment is a veritable dream of bisecting lines, and of one ninety-degree angle of an invitingly blue swimming pool. This peek into interiors and at exteriors to which we normally wouldn’t be privy mostly comes off in movie terms (the director admires stateliness almost as much as Kubrick), except that Pollack scores the images to the sort of polite, solo piano that sounds as if it has too much reverb on it, contemporary music that’s straining for a Chopinian seriousness yet belongs more to the sphere of Jim Brickman.
Pollack weaves the movie in and out of footage of assorted interviewees, most of whom leave us little to remember them by. There are, pleasingly, exceptions. Michael Eisner, who got to know Gehry over their shared interest in hockey, likens the curved rooftop of Disney ICE to the breasts of “a strange woman.” More significantly, there’s the architect’s analyst Milton Wexler, an elderly charmer who describes his “naïveté” about art as instrumental in their therapy sessions. Wexler recalls being sought after by other architects, in the wake of Gehry’s successful treatment, but turning them all away because, “I can open up the flood gates, but if there’s no flood back there . . .” In a sharp cut, Pollack abruptly breaks off from Wexler at that instant, before the words lose their impact; cinematically, it’s the savviest thing Pollack does with any of his interview subjects. And then, curiously, we have the heavily bearded Julian Schnabel sashaying about in dark sunglasses and a white terrycloth bathrobe, sometimes with a half-smoked cigarette in hand, at another with a brandy snifter, the contents of which more closely resemble lager than brandy. I don’t remember anything Schnabel said, but I do appreciate his resistance to being photographed as a talking head. A decade ago, Schnabel directed a brilliant movie called Basquiat, the most playful and visually stimulating film yet made about a painter. At the time, reviewers devalued it and no one talks about it now. A few years after that, he received undeserved acclaim for the boring, tepid Before Night Falls. Could this have led to the state of hirsute ennui he affects on camera?
Sketches of Frank Gehry is at its most engaging when Pollack and company travel to Bilbao, Spain, where the light is vastly richer, more enveloping than LA’s blanched almond blandness. The camera goes into reveries over the Guggenheim Museum that Gehry built in 1997, and justly so, capturing the rippled wash of water shadows against the inlaid, brick-like shapes of a silver wall. In the Museum shots, the camera gets drunk on beauty a little bit, swooning upwards, the way our eyes would. I wish that Pollack had spent as much time and care photographing Maggie’s Centre, a cancer hospice in Dundee, Scotland. The dramatic colors and contours of the surrounding glens and distant loch are too briefly glimpsed for us to take them in. Even with the movie’s shortcomings, watching it still makes for a pleasurable experience, a lovely idyll on a Sunday afternoon; if it isn’t a great work about a great subject, Sketches nonetheless surpasses Nathaniel Kahn’s deplorable My Architect. – NPT
June 4, 2006