Maysles + Christo = 'The Gates,' an HBO Documentary

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“That’s my job,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg says to the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as they bemoan the possibility that an uncontrollable force (the weather) might undermine their massive Central Park art installation, The Gates. It’s one of many priceless found moments in The Gates, an HBO documentary ([debuting tonight, Feb. 26]) credited to four directors—among them a Maysles brother who has been dead for two decades – and rightly so. An epic work like The Gates deserved nothing less than the artistry of the Maysles to capture its tortuous path to completion in the winter of 2005. And the end result is a classic narrative, with the typical and stunning simplicity that has marked the Maysles brothers’ work since the 1960s.

As always with great achievements, luck has played a pivotal role. The directors had access, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to the original battle over the prospect of The Gates, and the resulting footage catches the absurdist debate among the city’s liberal leaders over whether the Christo vision would violate the artistry of Central Park. “It’s like painting over a Michelangelo,” one arts patron sniffs, only to be laughed at later by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who saw Central Park as the ultimate canvas for their saffron flags.

Sadly for the filmmakers—but fortunately for New Yorkers themselves—a two-decade leap forward in time results in a more accepting city ready to embrace Christo’s vision. The story devolves into a straightforward deconstruction of the work itself; we watch the painstaking preparations, the installation itself, and the impact of its extravagant beauty on those who spent hours wandering the park’s pathways for a taste. The questioning and the doubts that fueled the film’s opening fades away, and with it its energy.

In the end, a two-dimensional film fails to capture the epic grace of The Gates and the feelings it left behind. But it does have the sense not to focus endlessly on flapping winds and beauty shots; it delivers, instead, on the human dimension—catching the arrogance that drives Christo and Jeanne-Claude to see their artistry in such epic proportions. They act as though it makes perfect sense that the greatest city in the world should give over its showcase setting for an expression of their own, singular vision. But it’s exactly that sort of audacity that led to Central Park itself, wasn’t it? New York was built on the dreams of men and women who see things in grand scale, and with the confidence to succeed. That, too, is what made the Maysles Brothers a brand of filmmaking like no other—and this, their last collaboration, is a memorable monument to their gifts.

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