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February 13, 2008

Gates Open; Yonder Closed?

Catching up with Maysles and Co. as new doc (and family rift) prepare for big debuts

Gates keepers: (L-R) Antonio Ferrara, Christo, Jeanne-Claude, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Albert Maysles and editor Matthew Prinzing outside Gracie Mansion (Photo: STV)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg last night hosted a special screening of The Gates, the Albert Maysles/Antonio Ferrara doc chronicling the 25-year journey of Christo & Jeanne-Claude's eponymous 2005 art installation in Central Park. (The film debuts Feb. 26 on HBO.) I weighed in on the film last year when it closed the Tribeca Film Festival, preferring the 1979 footage of the artists at odds with a skeptical city bureaucracy to the later, more impressionistic survey of the Gates themselves: "The philosophical tension of the first 40 minutes attenuates to a token back-and-forth cut between snow, squirrels, cooing tourists and billowing industrial fabric; it alternately continues the Maysles/Christo & Jeanne-Claude tradition while compromising the riveting discovery of Maysles' camera eye," I wrote here at the time.

The gracious Maysles and Ferrara heard me out Tuesday, explaining that they primarily intended to emphasize the artists' work -- the expression as much as the drama. "It always happens that way," Maysles said, alluding to the efforts documented in his films of earlier Christo & Jeanne-Claude projects like Running Fence, Valley Curtain and Islands. "And every time it happens, I always think, 'If only there were two people like this trying to solve a big world problem.' They'd be the ones to do it. Especially today, with all these problems; we should have little Christo & Jeanne-Claude teams working on each one. They're so determined and so idealistic."

Ferrara spoke more directly to the latter half of the film. "It's like anything -- it has to represent your feeling of being there," he said. "I spent a good four years total between 2003 and 2007 when we finished it. My guide was exactly what I experienced in the park and reflecting that feeling. We had 650 hours including the older stuff. ... Anyone can [edit] it down, but ultimately what has to happen is that it has a story. And then take people on a nice walk. That's the walk that I took."

Maysles added that the conflict inherent to the stories for which he and his late brother David are famous -- Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Salesman (not to mention the riveting first half-hour of The Gates) in particular -- was never something they sought in their subjects. "I have a somewhat adverse reaction to the word 'conflict,' " he said. "Hollywood assumes that it's not a film unless there's conflict. I don't know that's always necessary. Especially since they assume the conflict has to be major proportions -- if not war, then maybe conflict within a family."

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Which brought me to Wild Blue Yonder, his niece (and David's daughter) Celia Maysles' controversial new documentary about her quest to learn more about her father, who died when she was 7. I wrote about it in December for New York Magazine, when Albert Maysles declined to be interviewed about the film's allegation that he pledged, then refused access to David's unfinished solo project. Had Albert seen it yet?

"I've seen it," he said, nodding. What did he think?

"Terrible," he replied. "Unnecessarily, I come off badly. I wanted to cooperate with her, but I was -- and am -- making my own autobiographical film at the same time. I couldn't just let her pick whatever she wanted. I wanted the two of us to cooperate in that process. She took that as an offense. And as you see in the film, I come off as the bad guy."

I asked if his interviews were taken out of context or misleading, or if perhaps the film was poorly edited. "Actually, I think the film is fairly well-made," he said. "As she points out, the film benefits so much from the ruckus between her and myself. But it was unnecessary. And then there are certain things in the film that are totally wrong and wouldn't have [been included] if she'd been better informed about her father. There's a therapist my brother was going to, and she says that when he was given antidepressants, that he wasn't informed that he couldn't drink. That's totally wrong. When any doctor gives you that kind of pill, you have to sign a statement [acknowledging] that you can't take this that or the other. His wife also signed that."

Albert also denied a charge that he threatened to sue or seek an injunction against Wild Blue Yonder's exhibition. (The film has its U.S. premiere next month at South by Southwest.) "I guess I could have, but no," he said. "I don't want to hurt her. She's my niece! I'd love to help her out."



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