Sketches of Frank Gehry
Two minutes into this documentary about Frank Gehry, America’s most famous living architect, the director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, The Interpreter) admits that the documentary was Gehry’s idea. When the architect suggested it to him, Pollack pointed out that he knew nothing about architecture or documentaries. ‘That’s why you’re perfect,’ said the architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, just one of Gehry’s many unchecked remarks in this film, which are passed off as the mutterings of a genius. Instead of a well-researched piece of factual filmmaking, we get two old farts driving around Los Angeles confirming each other’s genius. It’s like Curb Your Enthusiasm, with no jokes and loads of well-composed pictures of showboating architecture.
The closeness between filmmaker and subject in this film is frequently nauseating. Gehry remembers a remark that the director himself once made about the commercialisation of art. ‘You said you made peace with it, by finding this small percentage of space in that commercial world where you could make a difference. That was amazing to me Sydney,’ says Gehry. The next shot shows Pollack, camera in hand, nodding in agreement. There is also some misogynistic guff mixed in with the mutual appreciation. Gehry talks about changing his name from Goldberg and implies he was living in a climate of anti-Semitism. Pushed by his interlocutor for once, Gehry suddenly blames the change on his first wife who ‘pussy-whipped’ him.
It is no surprise that much of the criticism made of Gehry’s work is dismissed. Hal Foster is presented as a token naysayer and points out that Gehry’s use of technology has turned him into a one-man auteur, sculpting big art rather than making architecture. His Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao does not serve the work it contains. This criticism is submerged in the slather of support from Gehry’s mates who actually do little for the architects cause. Julian Schnabel is the only artist Pollack can find to praise the Guggenheim. He poses in towelling dressing gown and shades: an artist who vies with Jeff Koons for representing what was most vapid about the New York art scene in the 1980s.
Inexperience needn’t have been a hindrance to Pollack but he’s easily swayed by charisma. Actor Dennis Hopper’s compares Gehry’s work to a bubble being forced down a drain by philistines. It is the biggest load of bollocks he’s spouted since his performance in Waterworld yet it is treated as somehow profound. Gehry’s architecture represents the best and the worst of contemporary design practice. In failing to look at the big picture, Pollack leaves us with the latter.
(Tim Abrahams - Acting Editor of architecture and design magazine, Blueprint)