The last documentary by the Maysles Brothers about the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude is The Gates (2007). Like the project it documents, it is the work of a quarter of a century, begun in 1979 when the couple first proposed their project for their adopted home of New York City. Filming was completed in early 2005, when The Gates were erected for two weeks in February. I found it the most thrilling of the six films, in many ways a most fitting coda to the series.
The film spends less time, proportionally, on the events leading to the installation of the massive artwork than its predecessors. There is a prelude of sorts, set in 1979, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude first approached the New York Parks Commissioner for a permit to install 7,500 orange metal-and-fabric gates, styled after Japanese torii, along the 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. Although City officials and the art-world cognoscenti were supportive of the project, it quickly ran afoul of the intransigence of certain sectors of the city’s population.
The chief objections cataloged in the film center on the potential damage to the Park, on the impossibility of ever refusing a permit for a similar project in the future, and on the sacrilege it was felt to perpetrate upon the Park. New Yorkers understandably cherish the only semblance of wild nature in their midst, but they also regard it as a man-made work of art in itself. To allow Christo to build his Gates upon Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape would be like, in the words of one opponent, having Picasso paint Guernica on top of The Last Supper.
Once the Commissioner’s final report has been received and project aborted, the film leaps forward 25 years to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s enthusiastic support and seemingly immediate approval. Little else is said about the process of negotiating the project’s start, although plenty of man-on-the-street interviews with a spectrum of characteristically crotchety New Yorkers indicate that objections were by no means silenced by the Mayor’s avidity.
What this film does offer, and what had been glossed over in the previous documentaries, is a tantalizing glimpse of the manufacture of the installation itself. There are shots of the fabric being spun, cut and stitched. The posts and lintels are stamped out, painted, and stacked in a Maspeth (Queens) warehouse in a scene that gives, in its own way, a glimpse at the epic scale of the undertaking.
As the date of installation draws closer, we see the heavy steel bases being unloaded and muscled into position with forklifts and watch workers sweating in their heavy winter parkas. To the soundtrack accompaniment of a Vivaldi recorder concerto, teams lift the Gates into position on the bases, bolt them in place, and grin at their accomplishment. In this respect, there are echoes of the earlier films: the act of erecting the installation produces a sense of community among the workers that reflects both the challenges and achievement and produces awe at the beauty of it all. Given the extent of the installation and the plan (as with Running Fence and the Umbrellas) to unfurl them all more or less simultaneously, the post-and-lintel structures fill the Park for some days before the official opening. One of the surprises for everyone is how stately, how much a work of art, the Gates are even in this half-finished state.
At this point, just slightly over halfway through the film, the logistics of preparing and assembling the installation are completed, and most of the reactions, pro and con, to the idea of The Gates have been recorded and presented. And then, on February 12, 2005, at 8:30 in the morning and to the accompaniment of a crowd of well-wishers, sight-seers, and ordinary New Yorkers caught in another extraordinary New York event, the artists in company with Mayor Bloomberg make the triumphal procession through a series of gates to the location chosen for the first unfurling. That honor is accorded the Mayor, who is warned to avoid being hit on the head by the large cardboard tube that will be released when the fabric falls to it full extent. The tube makes a satisfying thunk as it strikes the ground, a sound that is repeated over the next several moments as one after another, the scrims are released with the regularity of a military-sounding salute.
For the next forty minutes, the film contains almost no verbal commentary apart from snippets of reactions, almost all entirely delighted, by visitors to the installation. Christo and Jeanne-Claude themselves are among the most ecstatic. It seems that, despite the astonishing way in which Christo had imagined the effects of the wind blowing through the Gates in his preliminary drawings for the project, he is the most surprised of all by the sheer beauty of the Gates, by the strange juxtapositions and vistas they created both among themselves and with the Park’s and the city’s landscapes and skylines.
But most of the latter part of the film is given over to a gorgeous, impressionistic recording of the play of light and air and snow and rain on the Gates. The beauty of the installation is often breathtaking. Part of the effect is no doubt due to the sheer number of gates and the repeating patterns they form. Unlike the massive but uniform sprawl of the Running Fence, the widely separated Umbrellas, the gigantic impact of the Valley Curtain, or the static majesty of the Pont-Neuf Wrapped, the sheer mass of The Gates creates a kaleidoscopic impact that sets it apart. Added to this is the effect of the crowds of people in all their own kaleidoscopic glory as they process beneath the Gates, climb to vantage points on the exposed bedrock of Central Park, dance, jog, stroll, sunbathe, and giggle and gasp.
At numerous points during the film, the notion is raised that The Gates is an art exhibition that spanned the length of the Park from 59th to 110th Street, from Midtown to Harlem. Typically, public art of any kind in the Park doesn’t extend north of the reservoir into the City’s black and Hispanic neighborhoods; the fact that Christo planned to unite the two disparate ends of the Park was early on seen as a selling point by City officials. It also turned out to be a sore point among those who thought that the $20 million might have been spent more nourishingly among the City’s poor. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, typically, disavowed any political intent other than the simple freedom of expression that Christo, a refugee from Communist Bulgaria, found quintessential to the making of art.
And yet it seems appropriate that the final judgement on the installation is given to a middle-aged black man. He is clearly one of the many food vendors who find their livelihoods in the Park and with its visitors, and he is equipped with a barrage of statistics to prove how beneficial The Gates was to New York City: four million visitors, in February, when tourism is normally dead. Records broken. And plenty of commentary. But for this fellow, there really is no great message, no political statement either. So here is the workingman’s final word:
“It’s just art. You just look at it and keep on going. … Personally, I liked his Umbrellas better. But this, this was all right.”