The Reeler
The Tribeca Blog

Gates Close Out Tribeca

By S.T. VanAirsdale

A year after it screened Tribeca in the preview stages, Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrara's completed documentary The Gates premiered Saturday as the 2007 fest's closing-night film. It was a misnomer in a couple of ways -- the festival continues even as I write this Sunday afternoon, and the finished film actually screened privately for friends, press and other guests even a few nights before the premiere -- but I don't care if you don't, and I'm really, really betting you don't.

Gate-d community: (L-R) Editor Matthew Prinzing, Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera and Jeanne-Claude at Tribeca's closing-night screening of The Gates (Photo: STV)

The Gates chronicles the 25-year struggle of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to complete their massive installation of 23 miles of saffron fabric "gates" throughout Central Park. Maysles and his late brother David, who had previously shot docs profiling the pair's Running Fence and Valley Curtain projects, were there in 1979 to film the pair's frustrating and ultimately failed appeals to one New York civic institution after another. This early footage is easily the film's most rewarding, establishing the magnitude of the challenge beyond its baffling logisitics; several opponents invoke arguments getting to the very nature of art, while the social dynamics of the artists spending $5 million on the project stirs further skepticism among community activists.

Maysles and Ferrara returned to the Gates beat in 2004 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed decades of bureaucratic stalling. "The art itself didn't change," Jeanne-Claude told the audience after the screening. (Christo, who was in town for Wednesday's preview, had flown ahead to Belgium for a gallery installation.) "But the people who were responsible for giving permission definitely changed. I know that Mr. Gordon Davis, ex-ex-ex-parks commissioner is in this room. You should remember he's the one who, a quarter-century ago and more, wrote the negative report. But today he's our friend, so don't lynch him."

Oddly, the film's narrative momentum is directly inverse to that of the project it depicts. The Gates are green-lit, the 4,000 tons of steel bases are set and the fabric is unfurled in about 15 minutes of screen time, reducing the remainder of the feature to seemingly endless shots of the art against its wintery park backdrop. 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. The Gates gives up on its curiosity to the benefit of no one but its indomitable subjects, for whom glory and vindication are clearly secondary to their art but whose sudden heroism after 25 years is as much a triumph as the work itself.

You'll eventually be able to judge for yourself: HBO has the film slated for broadcast in February '08, and Maysles said he and the producers are looking for theatrical distribution in the months ahead. Meanwhile, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are at work on their next project, Over the River -- a 40-mile-plus fabric canopy set to envelop portions of the Arkansas River in Colorado by 2011.

Posted at May 6, 2007 12:16 PM

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