' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Gates

Friday, February 05, 2021

Some Drivel On...The Gates

“The Gates” begins with the efforts of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to surround the walking paths of New York City’s Central Park with 7,500 free-hanging orange fabric panels and ends with those Gates having been erected. If that sounds simple, however, it is not, which the 2007 documentary directed by Antonio Ferrera, Matthew Prinzing, David Maysles, and Albert Maysles makes plain in its own plain way. Indeed, a lawyer for Christo and Jeanne-Claude remarks that the artists insisted on filming everything, not just the finished product but the extensive bureaucracy that went hand-in-hand with getting the project off the ground. That transforms “The Gates” into something akin to urban planning as art. And if the artists are repeatedly accused of being driven by ego, paying for the project entirely out of their own pockets, which seems harmless enough until the matter of political kickbacks is inevitably broached, the gaggle of directors gradually, gracefully allow Christo and Jeanne-Claude to fall out of the picture so that by the end all that truly remains is their creation.

Their Gates dream went all the back to the late 70s when it failed to come off, done in by the apprehensions of both city government and the public. This is baked into the official name of The Gates, 1979-2005, suggesting the initial failure was baked into the project, all of it recounted here in video footage from the time, the visual demarcation line between 1979 and 2005 being when public officials are smoking in conference rooms and when they are not. We see numerous real-life instances of what the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” not entirely unlovingly deemed crackpot conventions, town hall meetings, where people are allowed to ask questions and vent frustrations. Unlike Leslie Knope who remained steadfast in the face of so many, by the end Christo is stranded in the back of the frame, slouched and dispirited, the reminder that democracy can equally frustrate as easily as it can facilitate.  

That the project is so easily reborn in 2005 runs counter to traditional drama but is also evidence of the kind of power that then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg held. There is something funny about watching “The Gates” now, in 2020, after Bloomberg’s failed Presidential run. If in seeking the highest office in the land his haughty air and expressions became fodder for so many liberals who saw him as a smug, out of touch rich guy, here his haughty air and expressions in a press conference with the media posing questions about Christo and Jeanne-Claude more or less telling the citizens of NYC to eat cake, a la Marie Antoinette, take on a whole different tone. Here stands Bloomberg the famous philanthropist, committed to art, who in jocular tones expresses his confusion as to why the project was ever scuttled in the first place.

Of course, portions of the public still did not care for The Gates, even in 2005, and their anger is documented. Not the anger of celebrities, like David Letterman, but ordinary folk in the park who in the days as the gates are initially being raised look at them with both disbelief and ire, as if they are nothing more than a saffron stain on something nature had already rendered beautiful. When the artists or the documentarians push back by pointing out that the park itself is manmade, not a a genuine environmental marvel, they still seem to view it as The Joker in Tim Burton’s “Batman” adding his own touches to various masterpieces at the Flugelheim. Still, in moving Christo and Jeanne-Claude aside not long after their creation is completed,  “The Gates ” ultimately leaves only the work hanging on the screen. The camera observes The Gates from all angles – up close, far away, from above, from below, in the morning and at night, in the sun and in the snow, with wind blowing through them and not, documenting their ever-changing nature, like Monet’s stacks of wheat – and gives the last scene to a Central Park vendor whose seemingly off the cuff summation feels like the kind of matter of fact critique a public art project meant for everyone, like it or leave it, deserves. 

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