Film: Toothless

Sydney Pollack's documentary on Frank Gehry is a little too agreeable toward its subject

Jul 12, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Frank Gehry (left) talks to director Sydney Pollack in a scene from The Sketches of Frank Gehry.

There's no in-between with architect Frank Gehry. People either love his free-form, expressionistic visions — the curves, segments and layers, the designs inspired less by function than by objects that catch his eye — or they hate them.

Making his documentary debut with this authorized profile, Sydney Pollack (The Way We Were, Tootsie, Out of Africa) is in the former camp. The film collects Gehry appreciators (Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner, Dennis Hopper, Bob Geldof and Julian Schnabel) and footage of the architect's team at work.

Gehry's creative process is amply intriguing to witness, as he and his designers work almost entirely with three-dimensional models — ripping out walls and sticking them back on, folding in corrugations, toying with different materials and tinkering until they get it just right. (Of one structure, Gehry concludes, "It's so stupid-looking it's great!")

Once the models are complete, they're digitized, and plans are drawn from the data and passed on to structural engineers. In other words, Gehry buildings really are cubist sculptures that people can occupy, as a series of talking heads attests. Painter Schnabel, who lives in a Gehry house, cuts the most memorable figure among them, probably because he's in his bathrobe, cigarette and brandy in hand. Geldof offers praise of the Vitra Design Museum and a frothing rant against all other forms of architecture.

Pollack delves into Gehry's personal history and even puts his analyst, Milton Wexler, on camera.

Intermittently, the director and subject discuss inspiration, method, commercialism and other aspects of their lives as artists, and their off-camera friendship gives these moments a nice familiarity.

Still, this is less a documentary than a cinematic valentine with a tone of vigorous agreement. Princeton's Hal Foster steps up as the film's official "naysayer" — he's well aware of his role here — and disjointedly accuses Gehry of pushing a brand. Only later in the film do we see a brief montage of printed reviews of Gehry's "monstrosities," which Pollack soft-pedals into a discussion of how such criticism affects Gehry's process. (The answer? Not at all.)

It's ironic that a film celebrating Gehry's iconoclasm is unwilling to really tackle the controversy surrounding his work. Radical art polarizes people; if it doesn't, it's not radical. Surely someone in Bilbao, Spain, is less fond of the city's Gehry-designed Guggenheim, a giant titanium-and-steel conglomeration of curved forms smack in the middle of downtown, than is the one speaker Pollack presents here. A journalist, she raves about the associated rise in tourism since the building's completion.

The film has lovely moments — Gehry buildings can be extremely photogenic, after all — but it doesn't sink its teeth in the way it probably should. Grade: C