Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 17, 2019 9:51 am 
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Christo and Jeanne-Claude's floating pier project in Italy

Jeanne-Claude died in late 2009, putting an end to the earthly part of one of contemporary art's greatest and most visible working partnerships and longest-lasting artistic romances. Born on the same day, Bulgarian Christo and French Jeanne-Claude were inseparable for half a century. This legendary artistic team created great temporary environmental works that have been a source of pleasure and astonishment to millions all over the world. Some of their most famous works were the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris; the 24-mile hill-scanning Running Fence in California's Sonoma and Marin counties (when this reviewer got involved), and - a special, long-delayed passion project, because close to home, The Gates in Central Park, New York - their home town for forty years. Floating Piers is Christo's first major project completed since his wife's passing.

It still belongs to her too. In 1970 the couple together conceived a "floating pier" project. It was to allow the visiting public to walk out over the water over a special, temporary, lightweight, linked "pier." They tried to carry out this scheme in Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay, but failed to get approval; they tried again inTokyo Bay, and that plan also failed. This is not unusual for them. A lot of their projects have had to be jettisoned, due nearly always not to technical but to bureaucratic obstacles. Then in June 2016, Floating Piers came into being in Italy, on Lake Iseo, in Lombardy, near the cities of Brescia and Bergamo. This is a film about that project.

There was another loss to the Christo team, as it were, since David and Albert Maysles, the fraternal documentarians, who made 30 films together including the classic Salesman, Gray Gardens and Gimmie Shelter, also became Christo's film record-keepers. Their coverage of Christo and Jeanne-Clsude began with Christo's Valley Curtan (a short film nominated for an Academy Award) and continued till 2005 for The Gates, started in 1979 and completed by Albert after David's 1987 death. To watch the Maysles Christo films (with the couple's own useful commentaries as bonus material) is to get a brilliant, colorful picture of the Bulgarian artist's work and his combative, unshakable relationship with Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon, who, as a French army general's daughter, seemed always to possess an unbeatable and unshakable combination of command and charm. The films are now viewable as a set: see my article, "The Art of Christo & Jeanne-Claude and the Maysles Films" (24 Apr 2015).

Well, this is a hard act to follow, as hard as life must be for Christo without Jeanne-Claude. The Bulgarian documentary filmmaker Andrey Paounov does a creditable job, however, working in the same "direct" style as the Maysles did. Some say what he does here is ironic and witty; I don't see that so much. He simply provides glimpses of what happens as things go along. Christo is 83 now (so would Jeanne-Claude be, had she lived, of course), and he may look frail, and not as buoyant as in the great days of - well, 2005, when he and his wife could walk hand in hand among the Gates in Central Park. But he has a very energetic collaborator now in his tall, burly nephew, Vladmir.

Okay, there is irony if you like in the way by editing Paounov shows how often Christo repeats himself talking to different groups of the public about the new project - who knows? Is he the one who first said the work required "passion" not "patience," or was it Jeanne-Claude? Or did they make it up together? This was a couple who finished each other's sentences; though Christo was always the front man. He was also always feisty and quick to anger. And he was not a technology person. Now, there is more technology to buck. This film makes clearer than most how much he has relied on engineers to figure out how to make the projects work. There is a furious argument between Christo and Vladimir about the size of chains to be attached to the saffron cloth panels that are spread over the floating pylons of Floating Piers. Christo wants a small chain, Vladimir wands a heavy one. and Vladimir says if it's not the heavy one, you might as well have no chain at all. Unfortunately, the resolution of this issue is never shown in the film.

Christo isn't the best of listeners, and indeed has more passion than patience. One place where he shines is talking to a class of school kids. We watch them rapt and think, some of them will remember this. It is the passion of art-making that Christo embodies, and of communicating it to the public.

There's a good sequence when Christo visits the Sistine Chapel, prompting a sense that in grand artistic scale the two artists have something in common, after all. Only Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works are kept up a few weeks, Michelangelo's four centuries. Since this review was written five days after the devastating fire in Notre Dame de Paris, it prompts one to think of all art as temporary. That one lasted 850 years. In the Maysles' Running Fence, we see a farm wife compare one of her good dinners to the 24-mile project.

The first shot in this film shows Christo working alone in his New York studio on a big drawing of Floating Piers, something I don't recall being illustrated as well before. Later, apparently in Italy, we're in a big room full of the framed Christo Floating Piers drawings when a posh chap comes in, all ready to buy one of the pieces, shocked to learn that now, the prices have gone up, and a small one will cost not as much as a condo, but as much as a house. And a really big one was originally a mil-something, and now it's gone up to two mil-something. A practical reminder: since Christo raises the money by selling his drawings, the objects in this room will have to take in $15 to $17 million. It looks like the man in the slick suit will buy.

In the end Paounov's film isn't a record of the beauty of the Floating Piers project so much as some of the Maysles ones are of the projects they filmed. But the filmmaker gets lucky when, as so often happens, something big goes wrong. In this case, it is that, apparently, local mayors, who make money off the bus lines (so Vladimir says), put no restrictions on the number of buses sent out to the project, and the crowds of visitors get much too large. It all has to be shut down for a while, and Vladimir proves just as feisty as Christo in confronting local bureaucrats. This is a very lively record, if not an inspiring one.

Walking on Water, 105 mins., debuted at Locarno and was included in other festivals including Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival and the San Francisco Film Festival, where it was originally screened for this review. For The Floating Piers, see the Christo & Jeanne-Claude website.

Opens May 17, 2019 at Film Forum and LA, SF and Chicago on May 24.

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