EmptyTribeca Film Festival
NEW YORK -- The first 40 minutes of "The Gates," Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrara's documentary about artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, rattle along with the intensity of "Gimme Shelter," the Rolling Stones doc Albert Maysles made with his late brother David. Filmed in 1979, the movie shows the artists battling with New York bureaucrats to get permission to cover Central Park with 7,500 fabric-paneled gates. Alas the second part, shot in 2005 when the artists finally carry out the project, is deflating. Shots of the artwork in situ and anecdotes from visitors become tedious.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's fame and the Maysles brand-name might lead to distributor interest. But art buffs are likely to be disappointed with its superficial approach.
An affable lawyer in 1979 tells the duo that the best way of dealing with New York City bureaucrats is to emphasize what's not bad about the project rather than what's good. His advice is spot on: Meetings with officials and community groups to get permission for the installation dwell on whether it will be a health risk, whether it will offend racial groups, and so on.
Even though the artists are planning to pay for the installation themselves, the city is hostile. Christo is accused of trying to "desecrate" Central Park and of wanting to tamper with nature. Christo rightly points out that the Park is not nature as it's man-made. The city rejects the project.
Fast forward to 2005. Mayor Michael Bloomberg gives the go-ahead, wondering what people could have had against it. Maysles' film then documents the installation of the gates, and asks various New Yorkers their opinions of them. To experience the gates in situ was a marvelous experience, as they completely changed the way Central Park was observed. But on film, their impact is diminished. Comments by visitors, while occasionally funny, don't help to elucidate the experience.
Films about artists tend to work best when they examine the artistic process. That doesn't happen in "The Gates," perhaps because Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known to dislike explaining their ideas. The meandering second half, which runs for almost an hour, would have benefited from heavy trimming.
Maysles has been documenting Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work since 1972. He released a DVD set of these documentaries in 2004.