Back in 2004, when a thousand anti-Bush flicks bloomed, Republicans and their fellow travelers expressed shock that documentaries might have a point of view. Well, of course they do, and that’s never really been in dispute. It’s just that most documentaries express opinions that are safely mainstream or address topics of distant relevance. Thus of the three nonfiction (or semi-nonfiction) films opening this week, the one with the most radical outlook is Overlord, which finds no glory in D-Day. And the one of least pertinence is Sketches of Frank Gehry, which supposes that the hottest architect of 1997 is an artist for the ages. But the one that will be mostly widely condemned as polemical is An Inconvenient Truth, which dares question U.S. automotive-fuel-efficiency standards—and in the process positions Al Gore for another presidential campaign.
Essentially an illustrated lecture—or, if you prefer, a concert film—An Inconvenient Truth follows Gore around the world as he revalidates the environmentalist credentials he put into a blind trust during his eight years as veep to business-as-usual Bill Clinton. Director Davis Guggenheim tracks Gore ducking down hotel corridors, dashing through airports, and riding in a variety of gas guzzlers. (The film promises that its fuel use was “offset by Native Energy,” but Gore’s own lifestyle certainly doesn’t look carbon-neutral.) These cinéma-sorta-vérité sequences merely punctuate the main event, which is Gore’s presentation on global warming. Personalized with family anecdotes and sweetened with cartoon critters, the show is entertaining, even if it’s not entirely convincing.
Gore’s computer graphics are impressive, and he interacts with them skillfully. He shows graphs and heat maps that posit a quickly warming Earth, as well as simulations of what will happen if large chunks of Greenland and Antarctica melt: Manhattan will be very soggy, Shanghai will be inundated, and Bangladesh will be essentially gone. But the emotional peak comes during a bit on the old parable of how a frog will jump from a pot of boiling water but stay in one whose water gradually warms to boiling. (For the record: This is not true.) The cute animated amphibian is us, of course, sitting cluelessly in a world that’s becoming fatally overheated. What should we do? asks Gore. “Well, first you rescue the frog,” he suggests, and the ’toon is plucked from the water. You can almost hear the entirety of the Little Mermaid generation breathe a sigh of relief.
This sequence carries the essential message of An Inconvenient Truth: Gore is back, and now he has a mission and a sense of humor—and cartoons! He sounds more like Mister Rogers than ever, which won’t win over voters who prefer their presidential candidates to bark like Rambo. Yet despite a first-rate environmental-horror slide show, including a clip from Futurama, Gore still relies on such old campaign standards as his sister’s cancer death and his son’s car-crash near-death. Neither has as much to do with global warming as with personalizing Gore, a man who may look detached but wants you to know he’s suffered just like people who didn’t grow up living in the Fairfax Hotel.
That’s one trick Gore learned from the political consultants long ago. Another is staying on message, which is why his environmentalism is all about global warming. It’s no surprise that Hurricane Katrina plays a big role in Gore’s presentation: It’s big, it’s new, and it makes Bush look like an asshole. But even if warmer seas did intensify Katrina, the hurricane was a disaster primarily because of a separate issue, the unchecked incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers. If the Mississippi had never been channelized and New Orleans not surrounded by improperly designed and built levees, the storm would have done much less damage. There’s a similar problem with Gore’s critique of American cars. Yes, it’s striking that the United States has lower mileage standards than any other major auto producer—including China—but even zero-emission vehicles would be an environmental debacle because of their effect on land-use policies.
Perhaps Gore is, as he claims, not running for president. Maybe An Inconvenient Truth really is a deeply felt response to a crisis that Gore has contemplated—as he says here—since a college course with early global-warming theorist Roger Revelle. And maybe it will inspire a few people to trade in their SUVs. But the inconvenient truth is that this film is likely to do more for Gore’s political profile than for the soon-to-be-submerged residents of West Bengal.
Major architects, like big-time film directors, are artists who make business. Their work is too expensive to proceed without backers, and these backers are forever trying to cut the budget or compromise the vision. That gives director Sydney Pollack and architect Frank Gehry, Pollack’s longtime pal and the subject of his first documentary, plenty to talk about in Sketches of Frank Gehry, a laid-back exercise in hagiography. “I think of him as a writer-director,” says Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz of Gehry. Clearly, the Canadian-born architectural showman couldn’t have found a better place to land than Los Angeles.
In addition to Ovitz, there’s his former pal (and Disney boss) Michael Eisner, who gave Gehry some high-profile gigs, as well as fellow entertainment exec Barry Diller, bad-boy-actor-turned-art-collector Dennis Hopper, and—not exactly Hollywood, but close enough—artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel and punker-turned-pop-activist Bob Geldof. Near the film’s end, Pollack interjects footage of the 2003 opening of L.A.’s Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, at which the architect is showered with glittery confetti. It’s a gleefully vulgar moment that says much about the appeal of Gehry’s shiny, outsized monuments.
Pollack, who appears onscreen framing shots with his video camera, lets Gehry tells his life story: a rough childhood, a night-school education while working as a truck driver, and the change of his name from Goldberg, which he attributes to his first wife: “I was pussy-whipped,” Gehry explains, deflecting the implication that he’s a self-hating Jew with a carefully timed burst of misogyny. The director also relies on his subject to explain his process, which includes the spidery sketches of the film’s title, as well as much futzing with silver construction paper. Gehry doesn’t know how to use computers, explains one of his assistants. But the curvilinear shapes and bulbous forms of the architect’s breakthrough work couldn’t be drawn or built without CATIA, an aerospace program whose centrality is ignored in favor of the visual possibilities of Gehry’s cutting, placing, and moving pieces of paper.
Sketches of Frank Gehry is a friendly discussion, not an evaluation, but Pollack bows in the direction of objectivity by acknowledging that the architect has his detractors. Princeton professor Hal Foster suggests that Gehry’s museums upstage the art they contain, and design theorist Charles Jencks, a Gehry friend, admits that some of the architect’s work is “very ugly.” The filmmaker’s approach is resolutely visual and anecdotal, so he turns from Gehry’s remark that his work has been called “logotecture” to a montage of print criticism that focuses, meaninglessly, on close-ups on individual phrases and words.
Pollack clearly made the movie he intended, a relaxed tribute to a famous friend and a small-crew alternative to his usual big-budget projects. There are moments, though, that point in the untaken direction of a more interesting film. Most notably, Pollack interviews Peter Lewis, whose aborted collaboration with Gehry has already been the subject of a Gehry-boosting 2003 documentary, A Constructive Madness. The astonishingly indulgent Lewis paid the architect $6 million over 12 years to design a house that was never built and whose ultimate price tag was an estimated $82 million. Over time, Lewis lost interest in having such a large home—which, he says, was turning into a museum.
Pollack presents this as a mildly amusing anecdote, but it’s actually quite telling. For grandiose postmodern architects like Gehry, every building becomes a museum: a signature piece that means to upstage everything in town. Sketches of Frank Gehry may present its hero as an easygoing doodler, but his work is essentially megalomaniacal. It’s the Hollywood blockbuster in undulating titanium, overwhelming everything in its path in the cause of, well, overwhelming everything in its path.
Technically a fiction film, Stuart Cooper’s Overlord follows a young British recruit from basic training to his first battle: the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, code-named Overlord. But the 1975 film, which has rarely been shown in the United States, stitches its invented scenes into ’40s documentary footage that’s much more interesting than the newer stuff. Indeed, this hybrid’s overall impact is considerably diminished by Cooper and Christopher Hudson’s pedestrian script.
Of course, mundanity is the goal. Thomas Beddows (Brian Stirner) is an everyday archetype, complete with the nickname that Britain has traditionally bestowed on its foot soldiers. In the opening sequence, Tommy sets out from his comfortable small-town home to London, only to be engulfed by a montage that includes everything from a fiery bombing-raid aftermath to a shot of Hitler looking out of an airplane window. (The latter is probably from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.) When not drilling with his unit, Tommy strikes up a tentative romance and goes to the movies, where he watches more newsreel footage.
Cooper’s schema requires that Tommy, implausibly, not see battle until D-Day. So the scenes of training and R&R are interrupted by a vivid dream sequence that includes ruined cities and charred corpses. The movie doesn’t attempt to hide that this is a premonition: Tommy is cannon fodder, and his story will end on the beach.
The movie means to emphasize the banality of the man’s fate, and it does that job a little too well. Overlord’s documentary-based passages, horrible yet strangely beautiful, elicit strong and complex responses. But Tommy is just a device—one that’s much less effective than the movie’s main conceptual gambit.CP