If, like this unfortunate critic, you didn't make it to New York's Central Park during the first two weeks of 2005, the new documentary "The Gates" will make you regret it. Those 14 days in January were the only chance to see Bulgarian-born artist Christo's latest masterpiece, a temporary installation of 7,500 saffron-colored portals along the park's 23 miles of walkways.
The filmmakers, led by the great Albert and David Maysles ("Gimme Shelter," "Grey Gardens"), began shooting footage for the documentary in 1979, when Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, proposed the project to New York's Department of Parks and Recreation. That footage is included in the documentary, and shows a nebbishy, heavily-accented Christo defending his "baby" from the attacks of environmentalists, preservationists, traditionalists, NIMBYs, and the usual assortment of philistines. Having fled Eastern Europe during the Khrushchev era, Christo was flabbergasted to hear his project called "an act of cultural dictatorship."
Following a series of disastrous public meetings, the parks department scuttled the project. And although Christo rose to international fame by building a 24-mile white nylon fence across Northern California, wrapping Berlin's Reichstag in silver fabric, and swaddling 11 islands in Biscayne Bay in floating pink polypropylene, he remained obsessed with his Central Park project.
Christo finally got the green light in 2003, when art-loving Mayor Michael Bloomberg approved the project. The documentary shows the planning, construction, and installation of the gates, which required about 5,000 tons of steel - three-quarters of the amount used in the Eiffel Tower. It shows the reactions of New Yorkers, from rapturous praise to venomous critique (one man threatened to use a flame-thrower). And, of course, it lovingly shows the gates themselves, at day and night, in rain and snow, in wind and in calm.
The 21st-century scenes are shot using a grainy, washed-out stock similar to that of the earliest footage. Still, the film should be required viewing for anyone interested in contemporary art. It provides an intimate look into the gestation of one of Christo's greatest installations, and a fascinating look at the politics of culture in New York. You may have missed "The Gates," but don't miss this "Gates."
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of the film "The Gates" in Thursday's Style & Arts section misstated the period of time that the artwork "The Gates," by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, was in place in New York's Central Park. It was completed Feb. 12, 2005, and removed 16 days later.