Documentarians at 'The Gates': Maysles Does Christo--Once Again
By Barbara Rick
Almost anyone in docs will tell you: Albert Maysles is a giant of generosity, full of humor about the human race. My friendship with him began in the late 1990s at a film festival in North Carolina. I thought it a mark of my eminent skill and potential as a filmmaker that he had been so kind to me, so open and willing to meet back in New York about my projects. Then I found out that he's pretty much that way with everyone who approaches him.
Much has been written about his cinematic lair in the penthouse above Gold's Gym on 54th Street, but he's moved on this year, to virgin studios and a new home in Harlem, leaving, after more than three decades, his storied Dakota duplex on 72nd Street overlooking Central Park.
Central Park is the setting for Maysles' latest film with the international artists known as Christo and Jeanne-Claude; it is his sixth film with the colorful and cantankerous pair. The Gates, co-directed by filmmaker Antonio Ferrera and airing on HBO in the spring of 2006, details the artists' 26-year odyssey of turning red tape into saffron sheets across the ultimate urban parkscape.
"The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about New York--as a filmmaker, especially--is any time I dream of or get into the beginning of a project, and there's somebody I've got to meet; I get the phone book, get the telephone number, call the person up, and the next day we're having lunch," says Maysles over Russian food at a favorite haunt. "Now, where else could that happen? Only in New York."
Each of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's environmental extravaganzas recorded through Maysles' lens has faced dizzying bureaucratic obstacles. This one is no exception. Much of the footage was shot during the early controversial years, when it seemed like the installation would never succeed. But changes of occupancy at City Hall eventually meant a change of heart regarding The Gates, and the ambitious display won a green light. Maysles never doubted the 7,500 panels over 23 miles would eventually fly; his faith in the artists never wavered. "They're too big a force," he maintains. "I have such confidence in them. I've come to think that if only the world had a few dozen partnerships like these two--improving our lives in many ways other than [through] art--the world would be significantly so much better a place."
Maysles first met Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Paris in the early '60s. They had attended a screening of his film Showman (1962), and discovered a kindred creative spirit. The collaboration among the artists began with Christo's Valley Curtain (1974; with David Maysles and Ellen Hovde), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Running Fence (1978; with David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin), Islands (1986; with David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin), Christo in Paris (1990; with David Maysles, Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke) and Umbrellas (1995; with Henry Corra and Grahame Weinbren), followed. "When they set up Running Fence [an 18-foot high piece of white fabric extending over 20 miles across California from the sea going east], they had to get approvals from 50 farmers for all the land they had to cross. That was easy compared to all the governmental problems that they had to solve [for The Gates], so it took a long time, a lot of effort."
More than 600 hours of footage, over 26 years, were shot for the Gates project. Maysles' relatively new association with Ferrera, who also served as sound recordist and cameraman, has provided some welcome relief from the great void left by the death of his brother, David. Maysles says the two men need each other. "When Antonio was three years old he lost his father. And he's been out looking for him ever since. And it was 18 years ago that I lost my brother. And the age difference kind of established me as a father for Antonio, and our working relationship establishes us as brothers. So we've got it both ways. There's a devotion and loyalty that only comes from that kind of family relationship." Matt Prinzing is the editor of the project.
Maysles says his favorite part of shooting is the instant he discovers he's recording something extraordinary: "You just have to pull all of your forces together to get it just right." This past winter, he was so consumed by the challenges of capturing The Gates' long-awaited unfurling, he has no idea what his own feelings were at the moment the miles of fabric finally swung free. He agrees he becomes somewhat transparent when he is immersed inside the lens, with one big exception: "There's something of yourself that you're giving to it, whether you're conscious of it or not. You notice things that others wouldn't. And it's that noticing that distinguishes your work from somebody who's good or not."
Although Maysles has never studied Buddhism and doesn't know much about it, some have commented on his work's Zen-like quality. He comments on the act of noticing: "Especially now, with a camera that doesn't block your view, you can see exactly what you're getting and at the same time you can see everything around you and people can see you, so you can continue your rapport. All that's very important. But if you're locked into only what you're seeing, you are that much less able to pull into the scene something which should be included."
"I don't film interviews," he adds, "but when I look at interviews from other people, the camera's rock steady, there's very little change of zoom. But at any given moment the hands might tell more than the voice and you should always be ready to include more or less. So even filming an interview can be well shot or not."
There are a lot of advantages for a filmmaker documenting an event that takes place--literally--in one's beloved backyard. "I'm always finding out something more about life and the truth, being in New York," Maysles notes. "For many, many years I lived at The Dakota. Well, that's one style of living. Then recently we moved to Harlem, and it's a whole other world--but it's still New York. I've been happy in both places, and cherish the new environment in each case. I remember when we were filming, Antonio and I, in the north end of the park, we met up with a woman from my new neighborhood--an African-American woman--and as we were filming her, she identified herself as a poet and then she broke into composing a poem about The Gates. So beautiful. Each one of these Gates experiences added to my appreciation of New York. And I love them."
5 Films about Christo & Jeanne-Claude: A Maysles Films Production is available as a three-disc DVD box set and an 86-page book, through Plexifilm.
Barbara Rick, president and founder of Out of The Blue Films, Inc., is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker based in New York City. Albert Maysles served as director of photography on her latest documentary, In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick's Journey of Faith (www.ingoodconscience.com).