Veteran filmmaker Sydney Pollack's documentary debut, a chummy portrait of his friend Frank Gehry produced for the PBS American Masters series, is rescued from its inclination to smug, celebrity-testimonial-driven hagiography by Gehry's own considerable charm and infectious enthusiasm. Born in Canada in 1929, Gehry studied art before he studied architecture,...read more
Veteran filmmaker Sydney Pollack's documentary debut, a chummy portrait of his friend Frank Gehry produced for the PBS American Masters series, is rescued from its inclination to smug, celebrity-testimonial-driven hagiography by Gehry's own considerable charm and infectious enthusiasm. Born in Canada in 1929, Gehry studied art before he studied architecture, and approached the construction of buildings with a sculptor's eye. Influenced equally by Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto and the childhood memory of sitting on the floor with his grandmother, building complicated cityscapes from wood scraps destined for the family's stove, Gehry married a sensual appreciation of natural forms and modest materials such as corrugated metal and chain-link fencing with a playful sensibility uninhibited by tradition. Gehry's fans include actor Dennis Hopper, rocker Bob Geldof (who discovered Gehry through a glimpse of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein from a tour-bus window), artists Ed Ruscha, Chuck Arnoldi and Julian Schnabel, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. Among dozens of interviewees, the only dissenting voice Pollack managed to find belongs to art critic Hal Foster, and his complaints seem directed more at the cult of personality that's grown up around Gehry than the work itself. Pollack's suggestion that filmmaking and architecture are kindred arts at first seems disingenuous, but the banter between the two quickly reveals striking parallels: Both require translation from one medium to another, each straddles art and commerce, both require the ability to strike a balance between individual creativity and other visions, and between imagination and practicality movies must engage and entertain, buildings have to accommodate the needs of a family, a retail business, an ice-skating rink, a museum. Gehry's way of working is intensely tactile; his impressionistic sketches illustrate broad concepts, but the real design work is done on wood and paper models that allow him to bend, twist, scrunch, flatten and tinker with form and proportion in three dimensions. Super-agent Michael Ovitz calls him a "contemporary Cubist sculptor," a statement born out by the sculptural curves of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. And just when Pollack seems to have given himself over to shameless cheerleading, he comes up with a deft visual riposte to Gehry's lament that painters have more freedom than he does in exploring the sheer beauty of surfaces: Pollack's montage of Gehry facades, reflecting their surroundings into abstract, painterly forms, is contradiction at its most eloquently flattering.
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