Within the first minutes of the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, the viewer knows two things: Frank Gehry isn't your father's Oldsmobile kind of a architect, and this documentary doesn't pretend to be objective.
This is the first documentary that Academy Award winning director Sidney Pollack (1985 Out of Africa) has made. In the opening scenes he states that he doesn't know how to make a documentary but Frank Gehry, his long-time friend, asked him to make it anyway because he wasn't a critic. The only thing he understands, Pollack says, is that like Gehry, he has had to make compromises in his work, balancing the creative with the commercial.
This film gives the viewer insight into a small part of Gehry's life and a large part of his creative process. Much of the biographical aspect involves Gehry answering questions posed by Pollack. What you learn about him is selective, what Gehry & the filmmaker find relevant to unveiling who Frank Gehry the architect is: the art lessons as a child, the immigration from Canada as a teen, the anti-semitism experienced, a name change (from Goldberg, at the demands of an ex-wife), the success with 'conventional' architecture that left him unhappy and creatively stifled. This material is appropriate, not so much as to overload or bore, and keeps this film more about the art, and less about the artist's biography.
Several people are interviewed in the film, discussing Gehry, his buildings, and his creative process: Gehry's psychologist Milton Wexler talks about how he has worked with Gehry for 35 years on creativity; rock star Bob Geldof talks about the Wow! Factor of seeing his first Gehry building (the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, Switzerland); a journalist emphasizes how Bilbao residents now proudly claim Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao as their own; former Disney CEO Michael Eisner discusses the commissioning of two Gehry buildings: The Anaheim Ice Rink and the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Disney Concert Hall; the renown architect, the late Philip Johnson, describes Gehry as artist/sculptor/architect, calling him as the 'world's greatest living architect' (a label that many may have applied to Johnson before his death last year).
The only person interviewed who is not a fan of Gehry's is Princeton professor and post-modern art critic Hal Foster. However, Pollack doesn't give Foster much screen time and his comments seem edited to the point of caricature. It is here that the critical viewer needs to remember Gehry & Pollack's words at the opening: they are friends, and Pollack knows nothing about architecture or documentary film. If Gehry's work is so 'edgy'(which it is), and controversial (which it cannot help but be if it is so edgy), there must be criticism.
Granted, a reputed 1.4 million visitors came to Bilbao in the first year to see what may be Gehry's crowning masterpiece, but did they all like it? I agree that it elicits gasps. Just show a photograph -- something that can only pretend to capture the sweeping curves of that unusual space flowing into the river -- to someone unfamiliar with the Guggenheim Bilbao and prepare to be surprised if you do not get a reaction. But, those gasps may not all be 'fall-on-your-knees-and-catch-your-breath' admiring. Expect a few "WTF's". Want a reaction from someone in person? As you ride down Michigan Ave or Columbus Drive, point to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge and innocently ask a Chicago cabbie "What is that?" (as I did a few years ago as it was being built). Your reactions will vary. (Repeatable in LA, Prague, Bilbao, etc.)
I definitely fall into the "Gasp in Amazement" category and would go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim building and might stop in to see the artwork too if I had the time (just joking), but I wouldn't believe that everybody would like it. You just can't look at a Gehry building and not have an opinion. I think Pollack's film would have been so much better if it had included some honest criticism, especially since Gehry says that he tries on the negative reviews 'like clothes, to see if they fit'.
Still, despite it's bias, this is an interesting film and I would recommend it not only to art and architecture buffs, but anyone willing to look at a building or the creative process in a different way. Gehry's buildings can soar against the skyline in a mesmerizing way and Pollack's filming tries to capture that. The scenes with Gehry's partners and clients also give a welcomed look into a collaborative creative process.
(82 minutes, rated PG-13 for some occasional use of the 'f' word and probably the Eisner's comparison of the Anaheim rink to lopsided breasts).
A few other links:
Scroll down to the 23-05-04 entry for a photo of the Anaheim Ice rink that makes interesting use of light and shadow.
Here is a discussion at arcspace.com of Disney Concert Hall. Includes interior and exterior photos.
See why Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a 79% "Freshness" rating.