Customer Reviews: Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack
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"Sketches of Frank Gehry" is director Sydney Pollack's first foray into documentary filmmaking, a personal quest to understand the work of his longtime friend, the Western world's most famous architect, Frank Gehry. Upon seeing Gehry's most famous work, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, at its opening in 1997, Pollack asked himself, "Where did this come from?" A question in the minds of many who have been transfixed by the Bilbao's metallic curves that rise organically from the Earth while they ironically convey otherworldliness. Pollack approaches the film with a layman's understanding of architecture and an intense desire to understand why and how Frank Gehry creates as he does. Gehry is at ease with his friend and speaks freely of his background, his career, and his ambition. Pollack was apprehensive about placing himself in the film, but his presence personalizes the exercise and introduces a dialogue between these 2 men who both "try to find personal expressiveness within disciplines that make stringent commercial demands".

The greatest insight into Gehry's creative process and the evolution of his styles comes from Gehry himself. But clients, artists, writers, museum curators, Gehry's design partners, and his psychoanalyst Milton Wexler all contribute their perspectives on the man and his work. We see some works in progress and briefly tour some of Gehry's buildings: private residences, museums, and commercial buildings. The only Frank Gehry detractor who agreed to participate in the film is Hal Foster, Princeton University Professor of Art & Architecture. I would have liked to hear more dissenting opinion -or more balanced opinion- since the praise of Gehry's work becomes repetitive. Foster articulates only some of Gehry's weaknesses. Frank Gehry works very well with light, and his best buildings have lines that are utterly symphonic. But he has persistent aesthetic and practical shortcomings. In any case, "Sketches of Frank Gehry" is an inviting, insightful documentary that gives an impression of transparency, to match Gehry's buildings.

The DVD (Sony Pictures 2006): There is a "Q&A with Sydney Pollack" (34 min) from the Los Angeles premiere of the film. Pollack discusses how he approached the subject of Frank Gehry's work, being neither a documentarian or an architecture buff, but a layperson trying to understand the mind behind the buildings. He talks about the process of making the film and his intention to make a documentary that relates in style to traditional documentaries as Gehry's architecture relates to traditional architecture. And he takes some questions from the audience. Subtitles for the film are available in French.
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on September 22, 2006
Ironically Sydney Pollack's warm, intelligent portrait of his longtime friend, architect Frank Gehry, is probably the best film he's made in years. Casually recording Gehry at work and while driving, and outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles while it is still under construction, Pollack has made an intimate documentary of an architect who over the years has revolutionized how we see buildings, steadily redefining our relationship between space and light.

From the outset it becomes pretty obvious that Gehry has never let professional limitations get to him and he's notoriously rejected much of the artistic conservatism of the past. Consequently, he's created architectural designs that just don't conform to the normal, predictable rules of geometry.

Obviously whether you like his work is a matter of taste - I find a lot of his work rather cold and ugly - but it is absolutely fascinating to watch his metamorphosis take place, from the design stage, where his ideas originate as doodles on paper and assemblages of cardboard and tape, to their transformation into models and then the finished product.

Of course the final test comes when they are molded into glass and titanium, and we finally get to see the end result of Gehry's vision. At barely ninety minutes, Pollack seems intent to cram a lot into his film: We get interviews with patrons, admirers and friends, including Bob Geldoff, the former Disney executives Michael D. Eisner and Michael S. Ovitz the Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens and Herbert Muschamp, the former architecture critic of The New York Times.

Perhaps most interesting are the graphic shorts of Gehry's most crowning achievements. Along with the Walt Disney Concert Hall, there's the Disney Ice rink in Anaheim and of course, the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao that towers majestically above the city.

Not all critics are favorable; Pollack also interviews Hal Foster, an art critic and Princeton professor, who is far more critical of Mr. Gehry's reputation, and of the kind of "cultural branding," and the propensity towards architectural trendiness that his fame represents. But Gehry is always affable if not a little bit crusty and is more than willing to listen and take note of his potential detractors.

This movie, for the most part does a good job of balancing exploration of his personality with admiration of his work. As expected, it's Gehry who is probably the most frank and harshly candid observer of his work. And he even admits that it takes him at least a year to let go of a lot of his work once it is finished.

In the end, what we get is a fascinating portrait of a visual genius, a hardworking and refreshingly unpretentious man who has devoted his life to obtaining creative freedom through is work. Mike Leonard September 06.
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Even though I have since seen the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, I was first taken by Frank Gehry's work when I accidentally came upon the eye-catching "Fred and Ginger" building in Prague in 1999, an eccentric juxtaposition of a cylindrical concrete building and a free-flowing glass tower that does indeed look like the classic dancing pair. Director Sydney Pollack has taken time out of his commercial filmmaking to make a mostly winning documentary about his close friend, the world-renowned architect. It's a warm and low-key look at Gehry's creative process which obviously parallels Pollack's own. In fact, the film is structured as an intimate conversation between the two and the joy of the film comes from the unexpected revelations that only happen between friends, in particular, how Gehry broke with tradition at an early age to design wildly original buildings that people either abhor or revere.

With a relative minimum of his own narcissism, Pollack is able to convey Gehry as a curious mix of self-effacing outsider and proud non-conformist and uses not only Gehry's own musings but the perspectives of others to provide evidence of both sides of the man. Not too surprisingly, Gehry's long-time therapist Milton Wexler provides the most perceptive comments about his patient's internal creative struggles, but there are also insightful remarks from Gehry's colleague, the late Philip Johnson; Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times; and architecture critic Hal Foster, the only one to offer a dissenting view of Gehry's work.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to broaden the audience for his film, Pollack has also included several celebrities, whose opinions about Gehry border on the banal, for example, film industry heavyweights Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner and Barry Diller; Dennis Hopper who lives in a Gehry-designed house; and Bob Geldof who just happened upon the Gehry-designed Vitra Design Museum while on tour. Director Julian Schnabel provides some funny moments as he shows up in a bathrobe, sunglasses and with a brandy snifter, especially as he talks about the audacity of Gehry's work and makes a classic analogy with Robert Duvall's performance in "Apocalypse Now".

However, the best moments are Gehry at work with his design partners Craig Webb and Edwin Chan, as they innocently start designs with construction paper and a pair of scissors. Pollack's cinematic skills come into play when he showcases the designs of Gehry's most famous buildings, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA and the DG Bank Building in Berlin. With long takes and compositions set against adjacent buildings, we can appreciate what Gehry was trying to achieve in making his designs compatible with the environs. Instead of the montage provided in the film, a more comprehensive and annotated image catalogue of his work would have been more helpful in order to understand the changes in Gehry's designs as his career progressed. Other than previews for several recent documentaries, the only extra on the 2006 DVD is an illuminating half-hour Q&A session with Pollack moderated by director Alexander Payne.
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on November 12, 2015
I thought the movie was interesting. I saw the middle half at LACMA and the beginning and end at home. I thought it was interesting to see Gehry in the middle of end of the century art movements and artists, but really I didn't see the point of or reason for admiration for his house surrounded by a chain link fence. I have driven around Los Angeles since seeing the movie, and my husband and I label every corrugated metal roof as a "gehry." So I guess seeing the movie has provoked a lot of fun for us. I definitely think it was more worth seeing the movie than seeing the exhibit at LACMA. The real discussions about how to change a model were more interesting than seeing the models themselves.
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on February 21, 2015
Frank Gehry is mentor for me. I never met him. I am not an architect. Of course I am not famous. So why is my mentor? Because he was a failure as long as he pretended to be what other wanted him to be: his first wife, his fellow architects, his teachers. Sheldon Pollack is not only the director of the movie. Is Frank's friend who believed in him. There was a moment, well in his 40's when Frank was nearly broke. He realized he is not an architect; he is an artist. He looks like a suburban family man. He is not. He looks fragile. He is not. The movie is advertised as a documentary. It is more than that. I watched the movie five or six times and I always discover something new that goes straight to my heart.
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on October 30, 2014
No insight into how Gehry's mind thinks. He says something, someone else cuts the paper and tapes it in place. Really? And his 'sketches' only he can understand them. Although Pollack tries to present a history of Gehry's career, it appears to be a focus on where he is now. Many background items mentioned but not followed up with. I was hoping for more. The complexity of his building designs require unique engineering yet none of that was shown. (Except for a construction site visit of the Disney Hall.)

I think a lot more could've been introduced here.
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There simply is no more controversial architect in the world today than Frank Gehry and people have very strong opinions about his work. He has both his passionate lovers and haters. I am one of the very few who is somewhat in the middle. I really love some of his work, while I find some of his work to be quite off putting. The person in the film who probably got it better than anyone is a sympathizer of Gehry's work, art critic Claude Jencks (the person who popularized the term "postmodern"). Jencks, for whose deceased wife Gehry designed a memorial building, states bluntly that Gehry has made some ugly buildings. I think with Gehry more than most architects, one must give oneself the freedom to hate or love his individual buildings without inhibition. Whatever else one may say about Gehry, he isn't like other architects.

One reviewer below called this a "puff piece," but that isn't really correct. It is more correct to call it a conversation with a friend. Gehry asked his close friend, the mainstream director Sydney Pollack, to make a documentary of his work. The result is a fine portrait of Gehry's career. Pollack certainly does not criticize his work, but interestingly he does not over praise it either. They do call attention to the fact that many simply don't like his work and the film contains numerous excerpts from one of Gehry's more vociferous and respected critics, Hal Foster. But the point of the film is not to provide an objective and critical overview of Frank Gehry's work. The point is to get to know Frank Gehry and some of his ideas about architecture. In this the film succeeds marvelously.

If one watches a number of documentaries about architects, one thing that is striking is how many of them are enormously likable individuals. For every irascible Frank Lloyd Wright there are ten you'd love to sit down and have a beer with. Much like I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry comes across as an immensely likable guy in this film. Perhaps away from his friend's camera he is an implacable tyrant, but those qualities, if they exist, are not apparent here. Instead, he comes across as a genuinely nice guy. In fact, a couple of the individuals interviewed stress that as laid back as Gehry is, he really does have an ego. I don't think I've ever heard a person in the creative field have anyone insist that appearance aside, they really do have an ego. In the vast majority of cases, that is all too apparent.

I found it interesting to see the shots of Gehry and either of his design partners working with him on designs. If you are accustomed to think of architecture as akin to drafting, watching Gehry work is a bit of a shock. He doesn't design so much as sculpt. He and his partners look like a couple of extremely mature kindergartners with scissors and paper as they cut, bend, shape, snip, and play with variations on the model they are struggling with. There is apparently little or no concern with the particular materials to be used. He seems rather to struggle with the kind of overall shape, with the assumption that with today's materials any kind of design can be turned into a reality. The film really brings out how Gehry's own conception of architecture is much closer to sculpture than to engineering.

As a resident of Chicago, a city noted for his importance to twentieth century architecture, it has been amazing to realize how little of his work has been done here. In fact, apart from his controversial (what else?) work in Millennium Park, I'm not aware of anything else he has done here. As a result, I have less direct experience with Gehry's work than many other leading architects. I must confess that much of what I see appears to be fascinating. I would, for instance, absolutely love to see his Bilbao museum. But there is one aspect to Gehry's work that I really applaud: its emphasis on individualism. One criticism of much architecture has been its essential conservativism. Much of it espouses nonegalitarian and conformist values. One sees exceptions, such as Louis Sullivan's refusal to put box seats in his Chicago Auditorium design. If one looks at a Gehry design, it is hard to imagine it ever becoming the style of choice of a repressionistic, totalitarian regime. It is too individualistic, too anarchic for that. Even such a free spirit as Louis Kahn still designed the capitol of Bangladesh. But it is simply impossible to imagine Frank Gehry designing a capitol.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I came away from it with a greater liking for Frank Gehry as a person than I had anticipated. And perhaps I will in the future be more inclined to appreciate his designs. He may not be the greatest of our architects, but he certainly is one of our more likable free spirits.
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on August 4, 2012
"And that's what artists must do, artists must take risks to do something new that no one has."

Not many of us can name many architects, but most everybody has either encountered Frank Gehry the person, or even more likely, one of his buildings. I would have loved to learn more about his early years and his start in the business, but I think the documentary has a nice balance as is: Gehry the man, how he came to be, his work, his struggles (both professional and personal), his team, and his creations.

An inspiring biography, and an inspiring message to all of us. Great documentary.
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on November 8, 2015
I think Gehry's work is fascinating. Certainly different and, unfortunately, scorned by some in the architectural world. It's amazing to see what the mind can conceive. I thought the documentary was well done....perhaps because it was undertaken by another artist with no architectural agenda but a gift in common of creativity. Enjoy!
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on October 13, 2014
Remarkable, fun video about the winding road to creative success for one of the most exciting and innovative architects of our time. Loved the dialogue and story as told by a great director. If you're looking for inspiration regarding life and work this is a must see.
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