Tribeca ’07: The Gates (review)

You will hear, Let them eat gates.

I can’t imagine a better choice for the closing-night film of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival: The Gates — a stunning, beautiful, deeply moving documentary about the art project by installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude — will have its world premiere on Saturday night with a gala screening. (There are additional public screenings on Saturday and Sunday nights, and the film, coproduced by HBO, will debut on the cable network in February 2008.) A valentine to New York City and to Central Park, the site of the installation, The Gates is a celebration of the same spirit that initially inspired the festival: to do something magnificent in the greatest city in the world.

Not that I’m biased or anything.
Now, Christo insists at a preproject press conference that appears the film that this whole deal has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. He categorically denies that he is motivated by any desire to help the city heal in the wake of that terrible day, and he cheerfully admits the project is “irrational, irresponsible, selfish” — and the fact that, as the film demonstrates, Christo and wife/artmaking partner Jeanne-Claude have been lobbying the city for permission to do this since 1979(!) is testament enough to that fact. The absence of political correctness is refreshing — geez, not everything that happens in NYC has to do with 9/11! — and is a wonderful indication of how filmmakers Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles worked as pure documentarians here, literally simply documenting the project in all its phases without feeling the need to editorialize or in any other way step on the toes of the artists or the art.

The artists come across as thoroughly charming, in an creative, off-kilter kind of way: Christo, for instance, characterizes the “bureaucratic horror” they slogged through with the city as “like poetry.” There’s a delicious meta twistiness to the film that suggests that the making of the art was as much a work of art as The Gates themselves, and that there was a certain splendor in the audacity it took to even try to mount such an ambitious undertaking as merely proposing to blanket Central Park in 7,500 flame-orange flagged “gates” for two weeks.

But for all the uphill battle Christo and Jeanne-Claude faced, much of it from naysayers who decried the project as elitist and a frivolous waste of money, the final half hour of the film is a commanding refutation of all such complaints. Without musical accompaniment or distracting narration, Ferrera and Maysles give us, simply, The Gates as they were in February 2005 — the filmmakers stand aside and let the project speak for itself, which is does most eloquently. Quiet scenes of the park and the throngs of awed people strolling under the giant orange gates express the grand scale of the project that even being there in person couldn’t quite do. The crowds and their reaction become part of the art itself, and wide, high views of the streams of brilliantly colored flags flapping in the wind from gates snaking along the park’s paths, caressing the curve of the park’s hills, lend a perspective that wouldn’t have been available down on the ground.

But I was there, one bitterly cold day that winter, and though The Gates did not make me bittersweetly sad and all messy from sobbing with joy, The Gates did. I had marvelled at the time how the gates sketched out the landscape of the park in a way that I had never appreciated before, but seeing images of the project two years later, I now realized that the ephemeralness of the gates was perhaps the most important aspect of its artistic nature. The Gates were beautiful in part because they were unusual — they transformed something so everyday as a walk in the park into a profoundly touching experience unlike anything I had ever felt before. The Gates made me simultaneously wish that they had never been taken down and understand that if they had not been removed, we would have stopped seeing them after a while.

I’m not quite sure what that means yet — it probably has something to do with getting a sense of my own mortality and inevitable death, and I’d rather not think too much about that at the moment. But I do know that it makes The Gates as essential a part of the art of The Gates as the gates were themselves.

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