Like a lot of people, I have mixed
feelings about The Gates - both as an art project and as a film.
Generally speaking, I am a fan of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work.
I like the scale of it, the concepts behind it, and the temporary nature
of it. I like that you can be "in" their work by virtue of
being surrounded by their projects' acreage. While The Gates
is ambitious and laudable as an involving piece of public art, I don't
think it matches other Christo projects, at least not in terms of the
relative appropriateness of place, materials, and scale. This documentary,
which ably traces the development of the project over the quarter century
between its conceptualization and execution, is only able to retain
viewer interest in proportion to that viewer's reaction to the work
itself. However, the film's first third is undeniably fascinating.
This film utilizes footage shot over a twenty-five year period, beginning
with a very involving half-hour. Christo and Jeanne-Claude first approached
New York City with The Gates
project in 1979. We see their original meetings with lawyers, city officials,
and a variety of citizens' and neighborhood groups. The initial conversations
with the city go quite well. The artists receive support from the New
York City Parks Department, as well as a prominent African-American
social psychologist, who the pair, working with savvy city officials,
intends to use as a wedge to gain the favor of Harlem residents. Despite
the support of key city officials and other community leaders, the project
is ultimately rejected following public meeting at which certain very
vocal New Yorkers loudly oppose the project on a number of bases: the
park is itself a work of art, which The Gates would deface; the
stanchions will obscure the park's natural beauty; park wildlife will
be adversely affected. There was no particularly convincing case made
against The Gates at these meetings. The long and short of it
is that New Yorkers don't want anyone touching their stuff. But it was
enough for the Parks Commissioner to ultimately reject the project.
This important first segment of the documentary was expertly shot by
Albert Maysles, who uses film to place you right in the middle of these
conversations and debates, and it's a funny thing to watch 30-year-old
arguments over an art project that was just recently, finally, finished.
I don't think attitudes have fundamentally changed since then. What's
valuable here is the inside look at the intra-city politics, departmental
bureaucracy, and behind-the-scenes ego-smoothing that go into positioning
a major public project.
We jump forward a couple of decades to Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally
green-lighting The Gates just a few years ago. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
leap into production mode, overseeing the fabrication of the steel stanchions
and the gathered fabric rectangles that form the gates themselves. They
also get very busy selling paintings and sketches depicting the in-progress
project (this being one their key methods of fund-raising for The
Gates, which they apparently paid for themselves).
The last two-thirds of the film were shot by other filmmakers, and their
footage doesn't have the crisp immediacy and clarity of Maysles' work.
It looks like it was shot on video, lending a cheaper "TV"
look to the image. Beyond that, it just doesn't have the characteristic
confidence of Maysles' eye, which always knew where the camera should
be placed and how to move it. Once The Gates is actually unveiled,
the film's final 35 minutes are spent "touring" the project
and picking up vox populi commentary. This goes on for far too
The documentary ends on an uncomfortably smug note. After a series of
reactions from New Yorkers and tourists alike, the final comments come
from a black man dressed in denim, who offers his own concise, thoughtful
remarks on The Gates. The camera then pulls back to reveal that
he is a Central Park hot dog vendor, as he says, "I liked their
umbrellas better, but this was okay." Would these words have been
worth citing had they come the mouth of a well-dressed white person?
Probably not. A considered opinion coming from the mouth of a working
class black man is "funny"? The way his words are positioned
reveals grotesque snobbery on the part of the filmmakers.
As I suggested in the body of the review, the filmed portions by
Albert Maysles look wonderful, while the more recent DV footage looks
cheap. The DVD is presented in an enhanced 1.78:1 frame, and generally
looks good, despite the stark differences between the older footage
and the new. The saffron color of the gates themselves is appropriately
startling amid the wintry backdrop of Central Park in February.
The stereo soundtrack is good. The filmmakers did a good job with
mike placement, capturing key participants in community meetings without
The only extra content is a few text-based features on the filmmakers,
the artists, and the history of the project.
A promising first third or so gives way to a pretty staid look at the
construction and unveiling of Christo's mega-project. The disconnect
between the different filmmaking styles at work here couldn't be more
obvious, with Maysles putting you in the center of the action in 1979
and the other contributors slapping together a an overly self-conscious
look at the recent execution of The Gates. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
come off as likable people in any event, and on balance the documentary
is certainly worth a look. Rent it.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.