Sketches of Frank Gehry is itself something of a rough draft. Sydney Pollack’s first stab at documentary filmmaking gathers all the essentials necessary for a comprehensive non-fiction portrait of the acclaimed architect: stories about his childhood, anecdotes from his colleagues, famous friends (Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz, Dennis Hopper), and trusted therapist (who gained his own measure of fame from helping the building designer harness his anger and self-doubt), and a dogged desire to understand Gehry’s creative process. And yet Pollack’s film is often frustratingly cursory, as if the director’s decades-spanning friendship with his subject led him to avoid fully exploring potentially prickly or private topics (marriage, divorce, opposition to his work). One clamors to hear more about the disastrous first try at matrimony that helped drive Gehry to therapy, or about his anti-Semitism-related decision to change his surname (from “Goldberg”), or from detractors other than the token Princeton University critic, whose negative appraisal of Gehry’s buildings—which he claims overshadow the paintings and sculptures they’re designed to display—is not only weakened by the speaker’s unpleasant smugness, but also sharply (and hilariously) countered by Julian Schnabel’s remark, “If [the edifices do] compete with the art, maybe that art isn’t good enough.”
Still, if many issues seem to get the short shrift and Pollack unnecessarily interjects his own presence into the film, Sketches is nonetheless a handy primer on the iconoclastic architect’s career that, at its best, offers an intriguing glimpse into the way in which casual conversations and visual associations frequently become the seeds of Gehry’s artistic ideas. Discussing the origins of his unconventional concepts, his close collaboration with a team of trusted colleagues, and his rebellious desire to challenge the architectural world’s stodgy traditions, Gehry comes across as a self-deprecating, down-to-Earth genius, a lofty title substantiated during an explanation of how a Hieronymus Bosch painting’s underlying shapes and forms influenced a current Israeli project’s floor plan, or how his renowned Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and Walt Disney Concert Hall attempt to achieve an organic interplay with their environments. Pollack’s DV camera is regularly transfixed by Gehry’s wildly diverse inventions, gliding around their supple, serpentine contours with awe-struck reverence. And thus despite its fascinating depiction of how the technology-adverse Gehry utilizes computers to help transform his hand-drawn sketches into cardboard models and then, finally, landscape-defining creations, Sketches ultimately allows the controversial, breathtakingly unusual buildings themselves to make the case for the architect’s inimitable greatness.