Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles’ glorious documentary on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park “Gates” follows the project from its initial, hotly debated proposal in 1979 to its final, triumphant installation in February 2005. Maysles’ sixth collaboration with the Christos climaxes with a beautifully choreographed sequence that basks in the art-piece’s ultimate commingling of trees, New Yorkers and 23 miles of framed orange fabric. Celebrating the city the immigrant artists have called home for 40 years, docu fittingly closes Gotham’s Tribeca fest, and fully merits an arthouse run before HBO’s skedded third-anniversary airing in February.
At an inaugural meeting to discuss strategy in 1979 (filmed by Maysles and his late brother David), the Christos’ lawyer suggests quite firmly that the artists first deal with all the possible negative aspects to the undertaking, covering every conceivable objection anyone might have (and in New York, the “conceivable” covers a lot of ground). Then and only then might the endeavor conclude on a positive note.
The film’s structure precisely mirrors the internal logic of the attorney’s advice. “The Gates,” in fact, registers as two distinct films, one from 1979, about a rejected, aborted work of art (with most of the positives cut out), and a second, from 2006, about the process of finally creating that work of art (with the negatives cut out). The first reads as sociopolitical tragicomedy, while the second waxes exultant like an urban operetta.
The Christos entirely self-financed their project by selling off ancillary artwork and preliminary sketches. It’s one thing for outraged citizens to become furious over how officials misspend the public’s money, but apparently, people can also harangue artists for splurging their own millions to interfere with nature and “the work of art that is Central Park” (even if the event only spans two weeks in the dead of winter).
The Community Board hearings set off the usual complaints about social irresponsibility and elitism, often couched in marvelous metaphors and fine hyperbole. Christo at first dynamically explains his vision; with the pride of one who has escaped the handcuffs of communist social realism, he declares he wants to build the gates for no reason at all except own artistic desire to do so. As the hearings proceed, he slumps more and more glumly in the frame as counterarguments range from the merely outlandish to the truly incensed.
Predictions of gloom and doom carry over into the second part of the film. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg gives his enthusiastic support, 9/11 lending a certain solemnity to the notion of consecrating the city in orange nylon. The voices of dissatisfaction start to sound like Mel Brooks’ yentaisms in Pintoff’s “The Critic,” like unending comic counterpoint to an abstract work-in-progress.
Ferrara and Maysles orchestrate the construction, installation and deployment of the gates as a three-part symphony, ending with a two-week improvisational interlude, as hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers flock to the park in February. As the mega-artwork is transformed by snow, sunsets and streams of people, the brightly colored 23 miles of pathways transform the wintry landscape into a fantastical garden of dancing cloth.