Pilgrimages – Albert Maysles and Christo/Jeanne-Claude

images2Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974; Dir.: Ellen Giffard; Albert Maysles; David Maysles)

Running Fence (1977; Dir.: Albert Maysles; David Maysles; Charlotte Zwerin)

Islands (1987; Dir.: Albert Maysles; David Maysles; Charlotte Zwerin)

The Gates (2007; Dir.: Antonio Ferrara; Albert Maysles)

By Daniel Barnes

The films of the great documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles rarely lacked for colorful characters – Marlon Brando and Orson Welles, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Muhammad Ali, the fading Beales of Grey Gardens and the sweaty Bible pushers of Salesman among them – but he returned to the conceptual artist Christo more than any other subject. Over the course of four decades, Maysles, his brother David, and various other collaborators directed half a dozen films about Christo’s colorful, elephantine, self-funded public art projects. They made for the perfect counterbalance: Albert the fly-on-the-wall observer, and Christo the wild-haired Bulgarian visionary, and their films together are essential to the Maysles filmography.

imagesChristo specialized in temporary public installations, usually involving large pieces of fabric stretched alongside natural wonders or draped over famous buildings and structures. The 28-minute Christo’s Valley Curtain chronicles his attempt to hang a large orange curtain along a gap in the Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. Valley Curtain is a perfectly lean concept film, contrasting the safety and tranquility of the studio where Christo meticulously prepares his models and sketches against the unpredictability of the outside world where the final product is constructed. Working in windy conditions, a simple snag in the curtain endangers the lives of the wire workers, but the end result is a remarkable feat of engineering and blue-collar labor in the service of pure whimsy and wonder. One of the running themes of the Maysles/Christo films is the need for Christo to assemble large teams of dedicated workers in order to realize a deeply personal vision. It’s a pretty powerful analogue for auteur-ism in cinema, or for the concept of authorship on any sort of grand artistic scale.

Since Christo’s projects involved a mix of public buildings and private lands, they took years of planning and politicking, and Christo considered the petty humiliations of county commission and zoning board meetings to be part of his artistic process (that’s where the verite approach of the Maysles brothers came in handy). In the hour-long Running Fence, we get a fuller picture of that process, and on arguably his greatest project: a 24-mile fence of billowing white sheets that snaked through the counties of Sonoma and Marin and into the ocean.  The fence becomes a magnet for public skepticism and political backlash, and over and over again in these films we see Christo forced to defend his legitimacy as an artist to a skeptical public. It’s frustrating and belittling, and yet the controversy and media spotlight almost forces people into a discussion about art, as with the greasy-spoon waitress who scoops meatballs and muses on the “nifty” qualities of the fence’s design. Running Fence is about how we engage with art – as creators, as critics, as citizens, as governmental bodies, and as sensory input machines – and the film is essential Maysles on the level of Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

index31987’s Islands leaps ahead in time a decade, finding Christo noticeably greyer and increasingly ground down by the process of governmental engagement. This is the first film in the series that prominently features Christo’s wife and irreplaceable collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who in the 1990s was retroactively co-credited on all of his major projects (the films, however, are centered on Christo). Islands is the least focused and most didactic of the movies, partly because it contains too much of Christo explaining his art, and partly because the central project – wrapping the islands of Miami’s Biscayne Bay in bright pink fabric – counts among his least aesthetically appealing. But Islands is also a fascinating look at the insane logistics of his projects (he’s simultaneously making plans to wrap Paris’ Pont du Neuf Bridge and Berlin’s Reichstag), and at the political groveling (a slimeball county commissioner deems a $50,000 kickback “not significant”) and public shaming (he’s still fighting the same fights over artistic legitimacy) that are necessary to make his flights of fancy a reality.

The reflective 2007 film The Gates is a culmination, both for Maysles and for Christo/Jean-Claude. As the artists announce their latest and most ambitious project – lining 24 miles of walking paths in New York’s Central Park with orange metal gates, with orange flags hanging from above – the film flashes back 25 years to when the project first stalled, a disappointment that Maysles was there to capture. From the beginning, everyone advises Christo to consider any potential negative aspects of the project, and The Gates makes it clear that obstinate NIMBY-ism is as prevalent in Manhattan and Harlem as it is in Napa County. Christo endures the same inane questions and criticisms, and he’s more detached than ever (“We don’t give interviews now,” says Jeanne-Claude), disappearing for almost the entire second half. That’s actually an unexpected strength of The Gates, since it allows Maysles and co-director Antonio Ferrara to focus on the ways that people react to the finished project, with reflexive outrage turning into a spiritual sort of wonder. “This feeds the soul,” says one visitor, and in their examination of the ways that art infuriates and enriches us, these meditative and insightful documentaries are just as nourishing.images4

*All four of the Maysles/Christo movies reviewed above, as well as the 1994 film Umbrellas, will show at the Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival, running from May 8-14 at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco. Running Fence screens on Saturday, May 9, as a double feature with Gimme ShelterChristo’s Valley Curtain and The Gates screen as a double feature on Sunday, May 10.  Islands and Umbrellas screen together on Tuesday, May 12.  For showtimes and ticket information, visit the Vogue website.