Sketches of Frank Gehry directed by Sydney Pollack. 82 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (June 16). For venues and times, see Movies, page 107. Rating: NNNNN
Hollywood loves movies about artists. Stories about geniuses create fascinating dramatic possibilities even when their craft - say, writing - makes for few stunning visuals.
In a feature film, a filmmaker can always take - ahem - artistic licence with the subject, inventing details, neuroses and even major events out of whole cloth in order to ramp up the spectacle. But making a documentary about an artist, trying to pierce to the source of his or her genius, is a whole other ballgame.
In Sketches Of Frank Gehry, one artist learns about another while learning a new aspect of his craft. Sydney Pollack, director of Out Of Africa and Tootsie, who's known Gehry for 20 years, has made his first documentary about trying to get inside the architect's head. It's odd to put a friend under the lens in this way, but without Pollack such a film might never have been made.
"Frank's a shy guy really," Pollack says on the phone from California. Not long after Gehry's world-famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened in 1997, the architect was approached about doing a documentary, but he wasn't comfortable opening his life to strangers.
"He just casually asked me if I'd ever made a documentary or was interested in making one," Pollack says. The answer to both questions was no, but Gehry was persistent.
"I kept saying, 'I'm the wrong guy. I don't know anything about architecture, I don't know anything about documentaries,'" Pollack recalls. "But he kept saying, 'No, that's why you're the right guy.'
"So I started thinking, 'Well, maybe I could learn something here. '"
Part of what Pollack learned was a new type of filmmaking.
"It's liberating, as opposed to the work I've been doing for a long time, which is all so tightly controlled and planned," he says. Sketches was less arduous to shoot than some docs. Most of the interviews were captured on hand-held digital video, because the director knew a big crew would disconcert his friend and interfere with his work, and the film grew slowly, shot during odd moments of free time over five years.
Pollack also learned more about architecture and his friend, who emerges in the film as a diffident and almost cuddly figure, belying both the dramatic impact of his work and the judgmental, competitive, egotistical guy both he and his friends say lies beneath the rumpled exterior.
Pollack interviews a range of artists, architects and critics, almost all of whom are complimentary, from Bob Geldof, who's hardly an expert witness but like a good Irishman can tell a story well, to painter Julian Schnabel, who, with his bathrobe and sunglasses and brandy snifter, is far more colourful than the film's subject.
The most revealing interviews, however, are with the artists who knew Gehry before he became famous, and with Gehry's therapist, Milton Wexler.
"It was really Frank's idea," says Pollack about including Wexler in the film. "He said, 'If you want to understand me at all, you've got to talk to Milton. '"
Wexler specializes in treating artists, many of whom, as Pollack points out, are "gun shy" about analysis, reluctant to inspect their talent too closely for fear it might vanish. The interviews with Wexler reveal personal details about Gehry's life, particularly his relationship with his first wife and how his confidence in his work grew, but the source of his inspiration remains outside the frame of Pollack's camera.
"It's always frustrating to try to track or expose precisely what the creative process really is," Pollack says. "We know that the bulk of it takes place unconsciously; we know craft is conscious, but real art and that kind of genius is just not accessible."
As detailed and intimate as the film is, its representation of Gehry remains a sketch rather than a portrait, allowing his work to speak for itself, as does all great art.
SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY (Sydney Pollack) Rating: NNNN
This film lives up to its title. It's a detailed sketch of the famous architect rather than a fully drawn portrait. The source of Gehry's genius remains frustratingly elusive, but you stop caring after a while, given how lovely, soothing and occasionally funny this film is - an ode to beauty by a man who knows from art even if he doesn't quite get this particular form of it.
It's Pollack's first documentary, and, boy, did he luck out: the subject is an old friend, and Gehry's buildings are as beautiful a set of objects as a director could hope for.