A Bridge and Two Continents (Christo, Part II)

The fourth of the Maysles Brothers documentaries about Christo and Jeanne-Claude (and the last on which David Maysles collaborated before his death in 1989) is Christo in Paris (1990).  This time around the project under examination is The Pont-Neuf Wrapped, which was realized in September 1985.  I first visited Paris in December of that year, and not realizing the extremely short duration of Christo’s installations, I was crestfallen to discover that I’d missed seeing the project.

As usual, much of the film is given over to the seemingly endless task of convincing people to allow the work to be created in the first place.  But this time, in Paris, we are on what became Christo’s home turf after he fled Bulgaria in the late 1950s and where he met and married Jeanne-Claude.  If I had thought Christo might find a more congenial audience among his adopted countrymen, I was wrong.

The chief obstacle the couple needed to overcome was the man who was then the Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac.  The canniest of politicians, Chirac didn’t want to be part of anything that would jeopardize his future and thus, although a great patron of the arts (the Musée du quai Branly is his enduring monument to his own Presidency), he refused to allow Christo’s project to proceed.

christo-pont-neuf

Popular opposition to wrapping the Pont-Neuf took many forms, although it seems that most consistently Parisians felt that it was improper to modify in any form and for any length of time one of the quintessential monuments of Paris.  Christo’s arguments that the bridge has been modified time and time again since construction began on it in 1585 fell on predictably deaf ears for the most part.

But this time around Christo had powerful local allies in Jeanne-Claude’s well-connected family.  And these connections also provided the Maysles the opportunity to explore a more personal angle to the story of the two artists.  There’s a good deal of biographical information about each of them, and the story of their courtship, initially fiercely opposed by Jeanne-Claude’s family, provides a warm and humanizing counterpoint to the picture of them as driven artists that appears in the other films the Maysles produced.

Eventually, Christo and Jeanne-Claude obtain an audience with Chirac, who bluntly tells them that he will not grant permission for the project to proceed until a year hence, when he will have assuredly won his final election for Mayor.  Once this chapter of his political career is secured, the work on the Pont-Neuf can proceed.  In the meantime, it is up to Christo to build popular support among ordinary Parisians.

He mounts a scale model of the project in a department store window, and canvasses for support on the bridge itself.  In the most telling conversation of all, he sits down for coffee with a trio of workers in overalls.  In a twist on the usual theme of defacing or altering a Parisian monument, one of the workers admits that he dislikes the very ephemerality of the project.  He says that the disappearance of the wrappings would give him a sense of uselessness.  To this Christo replies, “But in the end, the experience—you can never take that away.”

Less time is devoted in Christo in Paris to the mechanics of actually wrapping the bridge, to the final construction of the project, than in any of the previous movies.  Rather, in this film, the focus turns to the artists themselves and gives us charming new insights into what drives them and how they came to follow this path.

It therefore came as a shock to witness what appeared to be a complete change in personality the next time the artists and Albert Maysles teamed up to document their 1991 project in The Umbrellas (1995).  The installation of 1340 blue umbrella in Japan  and 1760 yellow umbrellas in southern California, each nearly 20 feet tall, to be opened simultaneously on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, had a whiff of hubris about it almost from the start.  And when Jeanne-Claude is seen talking to a reporter early in the film, explaining how, on the day of the unveiling, Christo won’t be talking to anyone (“If his mother were still alive, he wouldn’t talk to her”), a sense of foreboding begins to creep into the film.

This  time around the film spends most of its energy documenting the installation and opening of the project with its 3100 umbrellas streaming across two valleys.  From the first, Christo is driven.  He is determined to be present at the unfurling at both sites, a feat made possible only by flying against the earth’s rotation to land in California at dawn of the same day that he left Japan in mid-morning.  The enterprise seems crazy, even by Christo’s monumental standards.

And this time the forces of nature get the upper hand.  As the opening day approaches, the coast of Japan is threatened by a massive typhoon.  Beyond any simple concern about umbrellas with a span of 28 feet in diameter being subjected to gale-force winds, there is the problem posed by the fact that some of the umbrellas are planted in the middle of a small river.  Christo delays the day of the unveiling, but soon the major threat abates, and workers begin the task of opening the umbrellas.

christo-umbrellas-japan

They day begins badly: the car that is to take Christo along the route of the umbrellas is late, and the artist is fractious.  Soon, though, he and Jeanne-Claude are on their way, chasing the opening umbrellas.  Christo is maniacal; he has a plane to catch to California and he seems determined to witness the entire spectacle before departing.  He screams at the driver to go faster.  Then he demands a stop, several times blocking early morning traffic, to leap from the car and photograph his accomplishment.  Jeanne-Claude tries to keep the peace all around, but Christo’s evil temper is unstoppable.

Eventually, he has to leave for the airport, and with the weather threatening to turn worse again, Jeanne-Claude is deputed to oversee operations in Japan while Christo jets across the ocean.  He arrives in California in time to see the umbrellas unfurling over the hillsides like truly magical mushrooms.  Logistical problems plague the installation here as well, with crews working long hours in scorching sunlight and trucks seemingly unable to reach them with much needed water.

Where the blue of the umbrellas in Japan sparkled like gems amid the waters and the deep green of forests and farms, in California, the yellow umbrellas float across the sere hills and almost shine in the slanting rays of early or late sunshine across the landscape.

The reaction of the people who gather to witness this latest achievement is no less enthusiastic than in earlier projects.  Schoolchildren in Japan dream of sleeping out at night under the umbrellas.  Californians adopt them as sites in which to play out the rituals of their lives, including at least one couple who weds beneath one.  One woman who has been counting the furled umbrellas visible from her home during the installation process discovers that there are many more visible once they are opened.  She says it is the most beautiful thing she has seen in her life, apart from her daughter at birth.

christo-umbrella-california

And then on a glorious afternoon in California, the weather changes suddenly and tragedy strikes.  The cameraman captures the sudden approach of a storm; a white cloud darkens and seems to race up a hillside.  In the high winds that spun up, seemingly out of nowhere in a chilling echo of the Japanese storm, several of the umbrellas were uprooted.  One woman was killed and several other people were injured.  Christo immediately ordered the project closed down on both continents.  To further the sense that the project was cursed, a worker in Japan was electrocuted during the dismantling of the umbrellas there.

In the previous films, there had been consistent references to the cost of the projects, in dollars or francs, and the way in which Christo and Jeanne-Claude finance them through the sale of artwork produced during the planning process.  They make a point of noting that they never accept sponsorships or donations; the work of art is financed by its own creation.  Umbrellas gives a sense, better than the other films, of the kinds of emotional and physical costs involved in creating such grand works at scale.

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