Day 4: A Stone's Throw
Last year, I wrote about the odd experience of traveling halfway around the world to the Buenos Aires film festival only to find myself watching a documentary about the architect Bruce Goff, whose Japanese Pavilion for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is located a stone's throw from my Los Angeles apartment and something I drive past almost every day of my life that I'm not off attending a film festival halfway around the world. Well, now I am in Toronto, which is not quite halfway around the world, and I have seen another documentary about another architect whose work is inescapable in Los Angeles, but who is actually Canadian by birth. The point, I suppose, being that it really is a small world after all.
The movie is Sketches of Frank Gehry and it represents the culmination of four years of work by director Sydney Pollack to capture the architect, his work and the minutiae of his creative process on film. The result is one of the best movies I've seen so far in this year's festival. Though Gehry and Pollack have long been friends, the veteran Hollywood director confesses early on to being an architecture neophyte, and so, like the documentary Ballets Russes that screened here last week, much of the film's sprightly energy stems from its combination of expert research and amateur enthusiasm. True to its title, this relentlessly intelligent film approaches its subject from a multitude of angles: It is partly a talking-heads portrait of the artist as seen by his greatest admirers (Ed Ruscha, Philip Johnson and Dennis Hopper among them) and harshest critics (particularly writer Hal Foster), partly a travelogue surveying Gehry's major buildings (captured by Pollack in exquisite, sensual compositions) and, above all, an intimate observance of Gehry at work, cutting and pasting the scraps of silvery construction paper that will one day become sheets of corrugated metal and beams of steel.
Pollack may not know much about architecture, but he knows more than a bit about the struggle to carve out a personal niche in what is an inherently commercial field, and it's on that level that he and Gehry make their most meaningful connection — as two creators all too keenly aware of the neverending battle between art and commerce. (Among the film's many intriguing bits of trivia is the reminder that, in his pre-celebrity days, Gehry was the architect of the Santa Monica Place shopping mall on the 3rd Street Promenade — an achievement Gehry now regards with about the same enthusiasm Pollack might muster for his much-maligned Sabrina remake.) Sketches was produced for PBS' American Masters series, but it deserves to be seen in theaters, and on the largest possible screens.