In his time off from making some of the greatest docs of the last 40 years (Salesman, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), Maysles has chronicled the art installations of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the husband-and-wife team who love to wrap things (the Reichstag, the Pont Neuf). One dividend of all those years of filming is a detailed visual record of “The Gates,” a project Christo and Jeanne-Claude proposed for Central Park in 1979. This enjoyable doc follows the long and winding road from idea to execution.
With touching naïveté, Christo and Jeanne-Claude assumed that the city would be delighted to have them fill the park’s pathways with hundreds of giant temporary windowlike frames, from which red-orange fabric would hang like curtains. The film’s first two thirds are a witty depiction of the political and bureaucratic process involved in any public work of art, and Maysles (aided in the early footage by his late brother, David, and more recently by Ferrera) is a dab hand at conveying the surreal atmosphere surrounding the debate.
Once Michael Bloomberg comes into office in 2002 and, with no fuss, approves the project, things move into overdrive. After the gates are up, Maysles and Ferrera leave the artists and politicians behind, letting the gates speak for themselves, with some commentary (not all of it positive) from regular people as they encounter and explore the piece. In the end, the directors let a hot-dog vendor in the park have the last word, which perfectly matches the work’s egalitarian spirit.