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Docu Vague: Antonio Ferrera & Albert Maysles’s The Gates

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Docu Vague: Antonio Ferrera & Albert Maysles’s <em>The Gates</em>

As regards the Tribeca Film Festival’s closing night offering, The Gates, I can only say that it reinforces my ambivalence toward the vérité stylings of co-director Albert Maysles. With his late brother David, Maysles pioneered a house style of documentary filmmaking that took fly-on-the-wall observation to an often troublesome extreme. Admittedly, my Maysles experience is severely limited: I’ve yet to see Salesman, which frequent readers of this site will know is held in high regard by my co-editor; Gimme Shelter made little impression in the moment, and has since been colored by the disapproving insights of several friends and colleagues; and I’ve only seen snippets of Grey Gardens, though enough that I feel a severe discomfort at what appears to be a prod-on-the-freaks sideshow.

All this to say that opinion is quite possibly to change on the Maysles, though there’s a telling moment in The Gates that further strengthens my hesitant stance on their methodologies. While driving through Central Park one evening, the artist Christo (who, with his wife Jeanne-Claude, created the titular chain of fabrics that adorned New York City’s man-made woodland paradise for two weeks plus in February ’05) expresses concern that one or more of the large metallic structures will be stolen. He stammers on for several seconds, more than slightly paranoid, until Maysles counters by stating, “Just make it so my camera is there to film it.” It’s a tossed-off half-joke that points to, I believe, an essential descriptive truth about the Maysles’ style: Anything for the shot.

In some artists (e.g. Werner Herzog), such commitment to the ultimate outcome might be admirable. In the world of the Maysles it seems an act of desperation. They’re storm chasers fumbling about to capture lightning in a bottle, cobbling together a series of high and low moments, quite often at the expense of a unifying theme. Look at a good number of their subjects (Brando, The Stones, Capote, The Beale sisters, Christo & Jean-Claude) and you’ll see they tend to be, whatever their talents, fashionable figures of the moment whom the Maysles then either submit to or lord over with their hands-off approach. But how hands off is it? “Brother Maysles,” says Jeanne-Claude in one of The Gates’ off-the-cuff asides to camera. Yet her greeting goes unacknowledged, and it feels like an evasion, a denial of kinship with the subject in order to protect the manifesto-minded documentarian’s contrived oath of non-involvement.

The problematic nature of such sequences detracts from the things Maysles and his collaborators do right. The best part of The Gates is its opening section where a seemingly eavesdropped comment by a New York Parks official cues a years-removed flashback to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s initial proposal of the project in 1979. (The Maysles’ production house has since documented several of the artists’ works from conception through execution.) This portion of the film sets up a classic battle between artist and establishment (“It would be like Picasso painting Guernica on top of The Last Supper,” complains a nonplussed board member) that comes to a superb flash-forward anticlimax when Mayor Bloomberg expounds on his unquestioning approval of the project. There are also several touching glimpses in this section of David Maysles as he marks tail-slate, which speaks, dually, to the importance of preserved memory and to the resurrecting power of cinema.

But the majority of The Gates is devoted to the project itself. To endless, sweeping shots (in varying video qualities) of those multiple orange fabrics blowing in the wind, occasionally intercut with side-commentary by visitors to the exhibit. Once “The Gates” are unveiled, Maysles and his team shrewdly phase out most of the negative observations (one gentleman likens the project, sight unseen, to “taking a shit in someone’s yard and calling it art”). Clearly the filmmakers are, and feel they must be, on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s side. But the subsequent attempts at lyricism (both visual and aural) feel forced, not so much cohesive and spirited expressions of solidarity (in the wake of a mostly alluded-to September 11th) as capitulations to various muddled and divisive kino-eyes. The Gates then concludes with a final interview that—in placement, structure, and tone—plays as a cynical summation of the entire project (film and artwork both), a botched punchline that brings to mind Dave Kehr’s nail-in-the-coffin closer to his Gimme Shelter capsule review: “The camera that looks up too easily looks down.”

Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.