Thursday, August 03, 2006

Sketches of Frank Gehry (review)

Sketches of Frank Gehry, a documentary on the hugely successful and influential architect, boasts a clubby feel that initially is somewhat off putting: Veteran Hollywood director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) is a longtime friend of his subject, and the filmmaker has gathered a series of interviews largely fitting into the Gehry-is-a-genius camp.

Dennis Hopper, artist Julian Schnabel, former Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof and entertainment executives Michael Eisner and Barry Diller are among those singing the praises of the 77-year-old Gehry.

Pollack, too, allows his own image to be seen in the frame on many occasions, and he suggests that Gehry’s struggles – particularly as related to the difficulties of creating art that meets commercial demands – are similar to his own. So, then, The Way We Were was a hard-won triumph of art over commerce?

It’s not long, though, before the shots of Gehry’s unconventional, strikingly unusual creations, including the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, the modern-outside, retro-inside Mighty Ducks hockey rink in Anaheim and the magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, create a cumulative effect.

Innovating genius or not, Gehry has designed dozens of structures that willfully break rules and are irresistible to the eye. The connection he feels with painters, sculptors and other visual artists, rather than other architects, makes sense. The architecture establishment once rejected and even dismissed Gehry’s work and he has long opted to go his own way.

The payoff has been huge, both critically and commercially, and perhaps has inspired a bit of a backlash: Gehry’s success as a viable “brand” has led one of his critics to sniff at the “logotecheture” of his work – i.e., different city, same Gehry. Most who view the range of work on display in Pollack’s film likely would come to a different conclusion.

Pollack touches perhaps too lightly on the voyage by which Gehry traveled from poor truck driver to world-class architect, quickly skimming over the latter’s decision to anglicize his real name, Goldberg.

But he does manage to demonstrate how Gehry’s work takes a tortured path from idea to execution, often beginning with a scribble and undergoing countless conceptual overhauls, with the help of a talented team of design partners.

And when each project is finished, Gehry admits, his feelings of accomplishment are mixed with regrets about the things he might have done differently. That’s certainly something he has in common with artists of every variety.

(This film, still making the rounds at art-house theaters around the country, will be released Aug. 22 on DVD)

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