Friday, June 29, 2007

Silverdocs: The Gates

The Gates

Another sold out screening, my second in one day. Somehow I arrive late, for me, which means only in the nick of time to avoid losing my seat to a standby line demon. And yet I still have time to settle in to Theater 2 and greet my neighbor who suspects I am a journalist, what with the notepad. I play it off with the classic inside-the-beltway wanna-be-CIA, “I am not at liberty to say.” But I can’t maintain the illusion so I follow up with, “But I don’t have a pass and I’m paying for my own tickets so it can’t be that impressive.” You, gentle reader, know how very unimpressive my reportorial status is, indeed if this even rises to the level of reportorial status at all. But I still feel a notch above the sad people I see flubbing their alternating cheek kisses. So sad to watch such a social faux pas before a film dubbed by the Silverdocs programmers as “hipster.”

The (latest) director Antonio Ferrera introduces the film with a quote from Thomas Hardy: "Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange than to have happened." My modest efforts at finding a source for this quote have been completely thwarted.

The film opens with news footage of Mayor Bloomberg announcing The Gates while a ticker runs below about war and politics.At a press conference Christo and Jeanne Claude are harangued about the financial cost of The Gates. Jeanne Claude says, “Let them eat gates!”Fly over shots of New York City flying up Manhattan to Central Park.Christo keeps a record of the creation of the art.Two men talking about their involvement in The Gates recall the first time Christo and Jeanne Claude pitched the idea. Fade to older footage of the original pitch. The person their pitching to actually picks up the ringing phone in the middle of Christo’s sentence. Christo and Jeanne Claude say it will cost $4-5 million. They say it is their own money. Their advisor says they need the permission of the Parks Department. The Parks Department will ask will it hurt someone, will it offend someone. The three prepare to approach Gordon Davies, the commissioner of the Parks Department. So far the structure of the film is pretty simple: people talk about doing something, people prepare to do it, people do it. Gordon Davies says if I had $5 million I would not build The Gates. The CEO of Lincoln Center hosts a reception to promote The Gates. People express concern about the propriety of the project. Central Park is landscape art. The Gates would be like painting Guernica over The Last Supper. Another person says the best approach is to assume the worst. A critic says Christo and Jeanne Claude would profit from defacing the park. Another critic says granting Christo and Jeanne Claude’s request would set a precedent that would put the Parks Department in a position where they couldn’t deny any request. A supporter says it would unify the city because it would be installed all over the park including the north side of the park near the parts of New York City predominately populated by blacks, which is usually ignored. A critic says it is designed to look good from the high rises along the park which the urban poor cannot see. Another critic says it is an act of cultural dictatorship and a physical attack on the park. Next you are going to want to paint the rocks. Christo says nothing in the park is natural. This was a man made park. We can restore it again. In this old footage the editing marks on the film are visible at points. Cut back to the two older men who are now talking about the results of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s mission.Cut to news coverage. The McLaughlin Group debates the merits of The Gates. One says it is obstructing public space. Another says it represents banalization and repetition. Another says we like to experience things that are once in a lifetime.Cut to the manufacture of the fabric and the metal posts for the gates. Jeanne Claude explains how The Gates fabric will be unfurled at the same time all over the park. Christo and Jeanne Claude greet the filmmaker who is behind the camera, “Good morning, Brother Maysles.”People in the park react to the installation. “This was a beautiful park until this. I think it sucks.”Jeanne Claude explains that they do not do projects like this because of some reason. The did not do The Gates because of 9/11. It is art. It has no meaning. Christo says he loves New York City because everyone there is an immigrant. A truck driver hauling the metal posts for the gates says something big is going to happen.Volunteers assemble the gates. It’s an example of what you can do even if you have nothing. It is even a sculpture without the fabric. Christo is afraid someone will steal the gates and sell them on eBay. He wants someone to arrange for more guards. Brother Maysles says to Christo, “If someone can get that to the subway, make sure the camera is at the subway to film it when they do.”Cut to news coverage.Jeanne Claude makes an analogy between raising children and making art.Montage of orange sunsets.For the unveiling Central Park is full of people even though it appears to be the middle of winter. Christo keeps pointing all over the park and saying, “Look over here!”A woman says the park is abuzz like the lobby of a theater.Another woman says other art you can walk away from after a quick look. This art you can’t leave.A man with his daughter says he can watch the wind move differently in one part of the park by watching the fabric.A puddle of water reflects the orange of the gates in the rain.Larger gates appear like huge portals.An opera singer sings intercut with a squirrel eating a nut.People talk about the amazing textures of the fabric.People complain that two weeks is not enough.It’s like we’re just looking at the park and the gates with the natural sounds with no voice over and no music for a long time.A docent explains to a group of tourists about the ripstop nylon fabric and gives them each a square. A group of Jamaican kids tell a ghost story about why the gates are orange. One of them says the gate invite something mysterious into the park.When snow begins to fall, music rises. Tibetan monks pray next to gates that match their robes. Other people of other religions pray together. A bride and groom kiss beneath the gates. People talk about the cheerfulness the gates instill. The sound of a siren interrupts. People discuss whether it looks like art. People say the gates make them feel like everything will be alright. Christo and Jeanne Claude walk through the gates and are applauded by a crowd. People snap pictures. Some very posh women are amazed that they got to see them. A homeless black man talks to Christo next to a limousine. He says the money is well spent because The Gates feed the soul. A pushcart vendor says The Gates were good because they brought more people to the park in February than ever normally come. Then he says, “Personally, I like their umbrellas better.”Cut to credits.

Q & A with Antonio Ferrera, the (latest) director
Q: Was it a conscious decision not to show the end of The Gates?
A: I wanted to capture the feeling visitors had when they left the park. It was too sad otherwise.
Q: How did you make editing decisions?
A: We had 400 hours of footage of the event itself, 200 hours of footage of the preceding year, and 30-40 hours of footage from 1979. We had the best New York City cinematographers shooting in the park during the event. We wanted to create a journey for the audience. It took one year to wrangle the shots of the event.
Q: When did you sleep?
A: We didn’t get much sleep during the event. We shot 16-17 hours each day because the story is about light. Light with electricity. Light with a bird.
Q: Did you find the people who originally opposed the project?
A: We hung out with Gordon Davies. He eventually became an advocate for the project. But it didn’t fit into the story. At a screening in New York in April lots of people from the 1979 footage were there. I didn’t recognize them. I felt like something out of Washington Irving.
Q: Did Christo and Jeanne Claude make money on The Gates?
A: It’s published. They make nothing from the ancillaries, like shirts that said, “The Gates” or whatnot. They did sell drawings.
Q: How did you deal with weather?
A: If it happens, it happens. I took a break once during the rain and Christo comes into the trailer and says, “I would be very upset if you didn’t shoot the rain.”
Q: You could really see the pride of the volunteers as they put up the gates. It gave you a glimpse of the experience of it. Do Christo and Jeanne Claude have plans for D.C.?
A: Send them an email from their website ( ). But once you suggest an idea to them, they never do it.
Q: How did it work with the Maysles Brothers starting the film and you finishing the film?
A: It’s a long story. Working on that footage was archaeological. The Maysles followed Christo and Jeanne Claude on four other projects at the same time. So digging through to find footage of The Gates was challenging. We had to put together fragments just to see what was shot.
Q: Was it a conscious decision not to focus on the artists once the piece was unveiled and not to formally interview them?
A: Expression has to speak for itself. Its about the people of New York, Olmstead’s park, the Jamaican kids on the rock. You can’t interview shit like that. I sat and became one of the kids. I listened. You can’t tell them what you want them to say. On 9/11 I saw a city of people look up in horror. At The Gates I saw them looking up together in joy.
Antonio then took a picture of the crowd.

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