Schickel on Movies

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The scissors chomp into the metalicized surface of the cardboard. Two or three snips later a rhomboid shape drops free. Fingers pick it up and start crimping and bending it, propping it against the toy-sized model building. Eventually, it is taped to the little construct (think of it as a three-dimensional sketch) and the architect, Frank Gehry, starts musing about what it does — and does not do — for his design. By and large, he seems, tentatively, to like its effect more than he dislikes it. For the moment, it stays put.

As do we in the audience, absorbed by Sketches of Frank Gehry, Sydney Pollack’s very fine documentary about our era’s master builder. There are critics— represented in the documentary by a rather shifty-looking academic—who would resist that rather grandiose description of Gehry. But the truth is that the great buildings of his maturity are utterly inimitable. You can’t even pay him an homage; it would look like plagiarism. So one is stuck with the notion that he is some kind of genius, but one who, unlike, say, Frank Lloyd Wright, is somewhat discomfited by that term.

It is one of the virtues of Pollack’s documentary that it keeps Gehry pretty much in human scale. The two men are clearly friends and the film director — making his first non-fiction film — shoots in a style much less formal than he usually does in his features. He is also very much present in the movie, himself shooting with a small video camera while chatting with Gehry and using some of this material in the film. Despite his own successful career — full disclosure here, I’ve known Pollack casually for many years and employed him as the impeccable narrator of a number of my own documentary films — and he presents himself as an earnestly inquiring everyman, knowing but not expert, and willing to mention creative issues that have arisen in his life that are comparable to ones that Gehry has dealt with in his.

The best fun in the film is prowling Gehry’s studio with the two men. It is clear that Gehry hasn’t a clue about how to set up or run the three-dimensional computer programs that are eventually essential to completing his designs. He’s strictly a hands-on guy, and the associates who work the computers are as tolerant of Gehry’s ignorance as he is cheerful about admitting it. What we see a lot of are the feathery-light sketches — at first glance they look like gifted doodling — with which be begins his creative process. After that we follow him through sessions with the cardboard model-makers. He keeps looking for something he can’t quite explain, but which might be described as slightly transgressive — a shock to conventional expectations — but he’s not impatient, never in mastermind mode. He chuckles, tells little anecdotes, draw on past experience, but also looks for ways to transcend what he’s done before.

Alone with Pollack, he fills us in on his background: Humble beginnings in a Jewish family in Toronto, where he liked to build little toy cities on the living room floor, and where a teacher suggested at an early age that architecture might be something he’d like to explore. After that the Gehrys moved to Los Angeles, where he drove a truck for a couple of years (once delivering a kitchen suite to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who took a shine to the kid) and where he eventually enrolled at the USC architecture school. There he somehow managed to fail a basic course. In his early years he says he was more drawn to the company of the painters and sculptors leading the vibrant LA artistic scene than to his young architectural peers. Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel , even his psychiatrist, Milton Wexler, make appearances in what might be called supportive roles in the film, as do clients and other admirers, most of whom manage to stay shy of sycophancy. The film also offers a very handsomely shot portfolio of Gehry buildings, but spares us a lot of hard-hat sequences with the designer explaining and justifying. Perhaps that’s because he really can’t, and possibly thinks it would be pompous to try; striking grand poses does not appear to be part of Gehry’s emotional repertoire. Which brings us to the most interesting enigma this film explores, which is the nature of the artist’s ego. Ours is a democratic era, and democracy tends to reward regular guys and to look somewhat askance at people who do extraordinary things. How many people have you run into who confess that they might have become architects, if only… Same way with movie directors, with people who were good at writing in high school and so on. We need to believe that Frank Gehry (or Sydney Pollack) just got a little luckier than we did. And they need to pretend the same thing, lest they be mistaken for egomaniacs. On the other hand, if you’re good at something and have the opportunities to keep going (architectural firms are not for nothing called “practices”) your gifts likely will out. And from time to time in this film I thought I detected , mostly from his silences, just a hint of healthy — and justified — arrogance in Gehry. He does not mention any of his leading competitors and he does not deign to answer his critics. We do not see the artist relating to his clients, engaging in the give and take (and compromises) of that process. Nor does he have anything to say about architecture’s social mission — making a prettier, more soul-satisfying world.

What we have in this film, essentially, is a portrait of man hard at work (at age 77 incidentally), and that, these days, is a good (and rare) thing. Ask a man what he does and how he obsessively does it and you almost invariably get a fascinating document. For eventually we define ourselves by what we do, not by what we think we’re doing or what other people think we may be up to. In architecture, as in every thing else, the making is everything. And this relatively short, elegantly shot and edited film, makes us privy to that process as few documentaries — which generally are entering pleas for this or that political or social idea — do. It is, therefore, refreshing, instructive and very satisfying.