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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack
Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack
Sony Pictures // PG-13 // August 22, 2006
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly Beeman | posted August 22, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack and long-time friend of the controversial architect Frank Gehry begins his intimate documentary appropriately titled Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack with a brief explanation concerning the background of the five-year project itself, which essentially works as an outline and defines the style for the remainder of the film: "Several people approached him with the idea of making a documentary about him, and when he asked me if I'd do it, I thought he was crazy. It's not just that I didn't know anything about making documentaries; I didn't even know anything about architecture. 'That's why you're perfect,' he said." The very personal relationship between Sydney and Frank is probably what made Sketches possible in the first place. It gives the film an organic feel to it; everything feels natural, and nothing forced. This is the essence of Sketches, as well as the primary reason why it is so easily and successfully able to engage its viewers.

Frank Gehry was not always a likely candidate for architectural work. In fact, we quickly learn of his early failure in a basic class on perspective. He couldn't stand the fact that he had failed, so he took the class again, this time making an A. He then took a ceramics class at the University of Southern California in which his teacher had a hunch that Frank should take an architecture class, and so, he did, making another A. Oddly enough, in the middle of his second-year architecture class, his teacher told him, "Frank, this isn't for you. You should get out of here." Quite the motivational speech! Luckily for Frank and the rest of the world, he never gave up. Perhaps this can be somewhat acredited to the memory of his rabbi at Hebrew school from his youth who told his mother that he had "golden hands," in addition to the prophetic lady who analyzed Frank's handwriting, coming to the conclusion that he would one day be a famous architect. Frank might not have believed it at the time, but boy, did she hit the nail on the head!

Frank's breathtaking Guggenheim Museum circa 1997 in Bilbao, Spain.

In Sketches, Sydney speaks with a variety of people about Frank and his work, anywhere from Frank himself and the team (Craig Webb, Jim Gylmph, Sven Neumann, Edwin Chan, Tim Paulson) he has assembled to help him in creating his architectural masterpieces, to artists (Chuck Arnoldi, Ed Ruscha), writers and curators (Mildred Friedman), entrepreneurs and art collectors (Michael Ovitz), architects (Philip Johnson, Charles Jencks), actors (Dennis Hopper), musicians (Bob Geldof), filmmakers (Julian Schnabel), and others (Thomas Krens, Rolf Fehlbaum, Michael Eisner, Norman Rosenthal, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, Nerea Abasolo, Herbert Muschamp, Barry Diller, Peter Lewis, Esa-Pekka Salonen). Even Frank's therapist (Milton Wexler) and one of Frank's critics (Hal Foster) are featured (Sydney actually wanted to include more naysayers, but all others declined).

Each of these individuals contributes a unique glimpse into the world of Frank Gehry, but particularly interesting is Milton Wexler, Frank's therapist of 35 years. His eyes almost seem to twinkle when he speaks of Gehry. He notes that while many people mistakenly believe that he made Frank famous, it's actually the other way around: Frank made him famous! Other architects wanted treatment from him, thinking that he might be able transform them into the next Gehry, but knowing very well that that simply wasn't realistic, he turned them away. It is obvious, however, that Wexler did have a major impact on Frank's life in general, but also on his career as an architect.

Frank explains the entryway of one of his architectural structures to good friend and film director Sydney.

Sydney Pollack's documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry gives his audience an intimate portrait of someone who, at the end of the day, isn't all that different from one of us. Frank suffers from the same insecurities that many people face each and every day, whether it be at school, work, or even home, such as what in the world his clients and colleagues will think of his work, prompting him to want to "hide under the covers" rather than having to find out and possibly facing rejection or criticism. He also sometimes has trouble beginning his work, pretty much something all of us can relate to. Sketches provides an in-depth look into the creative process behind Frank's work as well as the resulting final products. It becomes apparent that Sydney himself emerges as part of the audience in his quest to understand architecture, really allowing the viewers to engage with Frank almost as if they were part of the dialogue themselves. This is probably what makes Sketches so successful as a debut documentary.

A stunning view from inside Maggie's Place, a retreat for cancer patients circa 2002 in Dundee, Scotland.

The DVD:

Sony Pictures presents Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack across one disc, housed in a standard black keepcase, and complete with an insert featuring other titles from the Sony Pictures Classics catalogue.


This single-disc DVD offers an English 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound track with optional French subtitles. Everything sounds clear for the most part, however; the scenes filmed by hand-held camera have a slight distortion, a very small hint of a kind of metallic sound. Not to worry, though, as these scenes are still easily understood by the viewer. Other than that, the dialogue sounds absolutely crisp and distortion/hiss-free. The element of music by Claes Nystro & Jonas Sorman gives Sketches a much-needed sense of both balance and beauty, bringing the rear speakers to life throughout much of the film.


Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, mastered in high definition. The picture naturally varies between shots as some parts of the documentary were filmed via handycam, and others not. The scenes shot by hand-held camera appear a bit darker, softer, and grainier overall, while the more professional-shot scenes look sharper and clearer. I believe this to be forgivable as the handycam scenes allow Sydney as well as his audience a more personal relationship with Gehry, which ultimately gives the film a feeling of intimacy not present in most documentaries. The colors are mostly vivid and stand out against the dark, solid blacks, providing a good contrast. The light reflecting off of Frank's buildings looks absolutely breathtaking.


Sketches contains two Special Features, the first being a Q & A with Director Sydney Pollack at the Los Angeles Premiere of the film, moderated by Alexander Payne and presented by The Film Foundation, Vanity Fair, and Tiffany & Co. This 34-minute featurette is presented in its original 4:3 or 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and provides a number of Sydney's insights before, during, and after the filmmaking process of Sketches. For instance, we find out that something happened to him when he first saw the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao at its opening; Sydney literally stopped in his tracks upon turning the corner and seeing it. The Guggenheim was, in that moment, so physically extraordinary that it seemed to make a sound in his head. It actually disturbed him because he didn't understand why. This is the essence of Frank's work: Many people don't understand it, and what one doesn't understand can mean anything, which can be quite unsettling. And yet, it can be, at the same time, utterly fascinating, although some people (Frank's critics among them), find his work simply "monstrous" and/or even just flat-out "ugly." The Q & A acts as a nice supplement and companion piece to Sketches; definitely worth checking out.

Rounding things out are nine Previews for Who Killed the Electric Car?, The Italian, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Why We Fight, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, The Fog of War, Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, and Cirque du Soleil on DVD.

Final Thoughts:

Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack works on many levels in examining the life of an architectural mastermind. It differs from other documentaries (much like Frank's work differs from other architects) in that it is filmed by a friend, giving it a personal touch that keeps the viewers from getting bored by instead engaging them. Sydney's film portrays Frank in a very humanizing way, and his architectural structures in such a fashion that they really do just move you. At times, I actually felt my heart swell up, especially when looking at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I might just have to take that trip to Europe sooner than I thought! Sketches comes easily Recommended to just about everyone, but particularly to art and architecture enthusiasts, or to those interested in documentaries in general.

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