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Towers of Babble 

"Sketches of Frank Gehry" explores the airy realm of the media-architectural complex.

Gehry, whose massive, spaceshiplike 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao seemed to secure his place in the pantheon of supreme 20th-century artists, emerges as a charmingly rumpled, folksy Everyman, somewhat bewildered by his own powers to revitalize not just architecture but whole cities (Bilbao, a local official assures us, is enjoying a Gehry-invoked renaissance).

Adoring beauty shots of Gehry's projects and sketches vie for screen time with the praise of clients, colleagues and cronies. It all goes down very easily — too easily, in fact. By sidestepping both the wide divergence of opinion about Gehry's achievements and, surprisingly, even the logic of his stylistic development, "Sketches" comes across as something of a documercial for Gehry Partners, the architect's Los Angeles design firm. Pollack has wasted an opportunity to turn the Gehry craze into a "teachable moment."

At the start of the movie Pollack rather anxiously admits that he knows little about either architecture or making documentaries. He may be right. Gehry's early work often played with L.A. vernacular styles, and we're treated to fleeting glimpses of these sometimes-whimsical structures now and then. But we never hear a word about how or why Gehry transformed himself from an offbeat regionalist into the purveyor of a style that so disregarded its surroundings that his buildings are at home (or out of place) anywhere in the world — anywhere, that is, where a mammoth foundation, corporation or government can pony up his fee.

Lacking interest in the shape of Gehry's career, Pollack more often contents himself with a tried and true staple of such films: the search for the origins and nature of artistic genius. Naturally, nothing much comes of this enterprise, although Gehry's onetime therapist shows up to take credit for letting Gehry access his previously untapped talents, in part by giving him the go-ahead to dump his first wife. "There's something in there, in that right brain, that allows him to take free associations and then make them practical realities," he avers. Given the film's flat-footed conception, it's a miracle that Pollack doesn't cut to an MRI image of that scintillating hemisphere.

What the movie lacks in depth, however, it makes up in star power. In fact, what's most interesting about the movie is its exposure of the media-architectural complex. Paramount's and Disney's ex-CEO Michael Eisner waxes lyrical about the Gehry structures he's commissioned. Barry Diller, the father of Fox Broadcasting, explains his role in inspiring a Gehry project this way: "Frank and I started talking about water, because he likes boats and I like boats." Guess what the building Gehry designed for Diller looks like. That's right, a boat. Rock star Bob Geldof? Big-time Gehry fan.

The one dissenting voice comes from Princeton art historian Hal Foster, who allowed himself to be interviewed in a wood-paneled, book-lined room that proclaims his debilitating distance from the cheerleading hipsters and business celebrities the movie pits against him. Shots of skeptical articles by Foster and others briefly flash across the screen like faded newspaper headlines tracking a string of gangland slayings.

What drama there is in the movie derives from Pollack and Gehry cagily using each other to burnish their images. Sporting a leather jacket and yellow Livestrong bracelet, Pollack praises his old friend for finding a way to be creative in an industry that makes such "stringent commercial demands." Gehry, taking his cue, notes that Pollack, too, has accomplished much the same thing in pictures. They agree to agree.

Money, in fact, rarely comes up, but a documentary about architecture that doesn't dwell on money is like "Hamlet" without the prince. Gehry's meteoric rise owes something to the debt-financed boom of the 1980s. This film, however, makes little attempt to place Gehry in either an economic or cultural context. As someone in the movie admiringly wonders, Why is it that we've fallen in love with an architect whose buildings project an aggressive, glitzy monumentality, Egyptian in scale? Gehry explains his style in a single word: democracy. Maybe so. A more adventurous film might explore this question, but this coffee-table book of a movie is satisfied to gaze wonderingly. (PG-13) 83 min. ** S



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