Veteran verite helmer Albert Maysles adds his name to this highly original and structurally flawless collaboration between Henry Corra and Grahame Weinbren. An ambitious documentary about an ambitious environmentalist arts project by renowned New York-based “wrap” artist Christo, “Umbrellas” unfolds as an increasingly suspenseful drama.
Christo and wife Jeanne-Claude spent $ 26 million to raise more than 3,100 20 -foot-high umbrellas along stretches of valleys in Japan and California to stunning effect for a two-week period in 1991, but nature provided some unexpected resistance.
Festival berths, web slots and specialized theatrical sites are certain for this pic, but audience response will depend on one’s tolerance for the artists’ unbelievable hubris, as well as one’s feeling as to whether the directors have finked out by ultimately celebrating the pair more than critiquing them. (Maysles Films has shot several Christo docus and will most likely film the recently approved wrapping of the Reichstag next year.)
Pic opens in 1987, with Christo lecturing Japanese school children about his upcoming project in rural Ibaraki and California kids about his parallel effort in the Tejon Pass north of L.A.
Cut to 1991, as workers in Japan hoist blue umbrellas, their colleagues in California yellow ones. (Christo eschews sponsorship, financing much of the project through sales of drawings.) Christo and Jeanne-Claude seem to have an EST-like hold on the hordes of groupie volunteers, some of whom cloyingly mime umbrella movements.
Conflict arises when heavy rains hit Japan, and, in one of the doc’s many ironies, an obstinate Christo keeps the umbrellas closed. Once they are open and Christo departs for the California site, a typhoon strikes, and an extremely bossy Jeanne-Claude takes over. (She rudely shoves aside a translator to wave goodbye to her husband.)
From the deceptive calm of California, Christo urges her to “save the project!” rather than temporarily fold up the umbrellas. Safety last seems to be his motto, and it will haunt him. In an eerie series of fades and news clips, the filmmakers show a fierce storm suddenly striking the West Coast project, and reveal how a woman was killed by a flying concrete umbrella base.
After 3 million people visited the sites, Christo agreed to close the umbrellas three days early (a Japanese construction worker was electrocuted during their removal two days later). With extraordinary chutzpah, Jeanne-Claude explains: “Christo loves his wife. He put himself in the place of the man who had just lost his wife. And then he said, ‘We must close all the umbrellas.’ ”
Helmers sprinkle enough colorful talking heads and quirky behavior by locals (a California couple got married among the umbrellas) to add some humor to the somewhat somber proceedings. Maysles’ camera work shows that his astute eye is still strong, Weinbren’s editing is elegantly rhythmic, and Phillip Johnston’s original score, which ranges from blues to bounce to big beat, is a strong plus.