Selected Writings by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky
Once Upon a Time: The Gates Film
An interview with Filmmakers Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrera, Winter 2005
In February of 2005, for sixteen days, an environmental sculpture called the Gates transformed New York's Central Park. Brainchild of the artist-duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the artwork consisted of more than 7,500 gates covered with saffron colored fabric that framed the park's pedestrian pathways. The Christos, who also financed the project, described it as "a visual golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees, highlighting the shapes of the footpaths." A festive and ethereal event marked by beauty, impermanence, and ambiguity, it was a twenty-first century public art version of Woodstock, attracting unprecedented crowds, and generating endless dialogues about art.
The idea for the Gates was first proposed in 1971. That's when the filming began by master documentarians and "direct cinema" pioneers Albert Maysles and his late brother, David, who followed all of the tedious negotiations that led to the project's eventual realization. Known for such classics as "Salesman" (1968), "Grey Gardens" (1976), and "Gimme Shelter" (1970), Albert Maysles' journey into filmmaking started after a brief career as a psychologist teaching at Boston University. With a 16 mm camera that he borrowed from CBS, Maysles chronicled mental patients in Russia in his first film, "Psychiatry in Russia" (1955). Two years later, he teamed up with David to make their first collaborative film, "Youth in Poland," about the Polish student revolution.
In 1959, the Maysles brothers and other experimental documentarians changed cinematography by inventing sophisticated lightweight film and sound equipment. The technology gave them what they were looking for --a chance to break down the barriers between themselves and their subjects. Establishing a more intimate and improvisational film style, the brothers (with Albert on camera and David in charge of sound and editing) set a gold standard for empathic and nonjudgmental observation. Crafting psychologically-charged works that captured the drama of real-life without scripts or narration, they created a new genre -- nonfiction feature films.
The Maysles brothers met Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1962 after a midnight screening of a documentary film they had just made called "Showman," about the flamboyant movie producer Joseph E. Levine. Recognizing each other as kindred spirits who shared similar artistic sensibilities and working styles, they became fast friends. David once said, "The Christos come up with an idea that at first seems impossible, then let it grow. So do we." Albert considered his and David's films and the Christo' s projects to be "outrageous acts of faith." The ongoing friendship evolved into a thirty year working relationship, with Maysles producing five films about the Christo's work, including "Christo's Valley Curtain " (1974), "Running Fence" (1978), "Islands" (1986), "Christo in Paris" (1990), and "Umbrellas" (1995).
Known for enduring creative collaborations, like the one he had with his brother for three decades, Maysles has worked with many filmmakers, including Charlotte Zwerin, Susan Froemke, Muffy Meyer, Deborah Dickson and now with Antonio Ferrera, on the Gates film (released in the Spring 2007).
Multimedia arts writer Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky spoke with Albert Maysles and Antonio Ferrera in late January, 2005, in a movie trailer near the Boathouse in Central Park, just a few weeks before the art installation officially opened.
Interview with Albert Maysles
Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky: How did you and your brother start working together?
Albert Maysles: I became a documentary filmmaker first and around that same time my brother met someone in the army (during the Korean War ) who was stationed in Germany. That person had an uncle named Milton Green, the famous photographer of Marilyn Monroe. So this fellow soldier said [to David], "When you get out of the army, maybe you can get a job working for him because I think he's getting into making movies as well." Green was making movies with Lawrence Olivier, and making films like "Prince," "Showgirl," and "Bus Stop." So my brother got a job working as an associate producer. Five years later we met up with [Bob] Drew, [D.A.]Pennebaker, and [Ricky] Leacock, and we made "Primary" [a film about the John F. Kennedy -- Hubert Humphrey 1960 race for the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin]. That changed everything. Now we could have the proper tools for making documentaries the way we wanted to -- going behind the scenes. In 1962, after our experience working with Drew and those other guys, my brother and I took off on our own and started making our own films.
Boriss-Krimsky: You invented "direct cinema," meaning no narrations, no interviews, nothing orchestrated -- just getting as close as possible to real events and real people -- letting them speak for themselves. How did direct cinema evolve?
Maysles: The basic tenets were already inherent in "Primary" : observe, rely serendipitously on what might come up, choose a subject at a time when something interesting is taking place, like the election campaign in the case of "Primary." But it took a film that we made seven or eight years later called "Salesman," to carry that technique to such a development that you could say we advanced from feature length films to feature documentary films. I like to tell the story that when we made "Salesman," we couldn't get it shown anywhere. At that time especially, a documentary film would never get into movie theaters. It was even hard to get it shown on television. It wasn't considered entertaining enough. And this film didn't have a point of view -- it was much more profound than that. Without any offers to show it, the only thing we could do was to rent a movie theater to get some reviews. But that was going to cost us some money. So we had screenings. And in one of those screenings, maybe a hundred people showed up. One night, as people left the theater and congratulated us, I noticed through a crack in the wall that there was one person left in the theater. A woman. And as she got up to leave, and she turned toward us, I noticed that she had been crying. As I got closer, I saw how attractive she was. I said to my brother, "She's for me." That's how I met my wife.
Boriss-Krimsky: That's beautiful! I heard you were a romantic and that you believed in love at first sight. This story proves it!
Maysles: I believe that in my filmmaking too. I think that a really good cinematographer commits acts of love.
Boriss-Krimsky: Do you fall in love with your characters during the filming process or does something happen before the project begins?
Maysles: Well, oftentimes it's in that very first moment, which also may be a moment of filming too, because I don't do a lot of research before I film. In that very first moment, there is an immediate connection.
Boriss-Krimsky: Speaking of connections, didn't you meet the Christos through an inventor named Mitko Zagoroff?
Maysles: Yes. There was a get-together of documentary filmmakers working on this new cinema verité style. We all met in Lyon [France]. Mitko was there, not as a filmmaker, but as an engineer, trying to invent a new kind of camera. Then my brother and I went on to Paris for screenings of our film "Showman." We invited Mitko and he invited the Christos. So we got a brief introduction to how they made their projects, which were not just drawings in museums. They got an introduction to how we made our films and we could see that we had something very much in common. Both their work and our work -- a major part of it -- is about what's going on in the world. People like it or don't like the Christo's artwork, that's part of it as well.
Boriss-Krimsky: Do the Christos have any creative input in the films?
Maysles: They don't exercise any control. If the film was made in such a way that we wouldn't want to make it, then they wouldn't like it either. They see it near its completion. We've had some very good people working on our films. Charlotte Zwerin is the best editor.
Boriss-Krimsky: What's it like, after more than a quarter century of struggle, to see this project finally being realized?
Maysles: Well, it started twenty-six years ago and as it started, my brother and I began to film. There were countless meetings with various mayors of New York, determining that, until recently, the project just wasn't going to happen. So we have all this resistance to the Christos -- and along with the resistance is their persistence and patience. I've often thought that the world would be a significantly better place if we had only ten people like that, each one dealing with another social issue, devoting that much energy and intelligence to solving problems. So, a new mayor comes along [Mayor Bloomberg] who understands art, has a collection himself, loves the work of the Christos and says, "Yeah, let's do it." Also, another development took place. The park was in need of repairs and that was done. Now it looks so good that the city can show it off.
Boriss-Krimsky: How do you approach filming twenty-three miles of Gates?
Maysles: Well... I call them Gateways -- it's more romantic! [Laughter] They're a symbol of New York itself, because New York, traditionally, and even at this moment, is the gateway to America for so many immigrants. We'll show all areas of the park and it will be wonderful when you see the contrast between the park when it had nothing and then with just pedestals and finally, with the Gates. We' ll see it from all angles -- from the air -- the police are giving us helicopters, and from the point of view of children, maybe a two-year old or four-year-olds talking under the Gates. We'll have six cameras, all focusing on the human element, as well as the beauty of it. But you know, it might just be that one of the most beautiful images will be the Gates at a standstill, when there is zero wind.
Boriss-Krimsky: You're known for getting on common ground with people, in a reassuring and safe way, allowing for intimacy, and total trust. A film like "Grey Gardens" would have been very different if it were made by someone else.
Maysles: It gets back to my mother's commitment to humanity. She always said that there's something good to be found in everyone. When we made "Grey Gardens," here were two people, I'm happy to say, who were just like anyone else. Only more so. They had the courage to want to be filmed and we wanted them to be filmed, just as they were.
Boriss-Krimsky: You have a lot of projects happening at the same time. I heard about one involving half-hour portraits of people traveling on trains and the train is the metaphor for life.
Maysles: I hope to do it in at least a half-a-dozen countries. I have this faith -- outrageous maybe -- that, as I'm on the train for several days in each country, I'll find someone on the train and I'll discover that, when they're about to get off the train, the story will begin. Then I'll get off the train with them.
Boriss-Krimsky: Is it difficult to keep all your projects straight?
Maysles: It's so easy because I have to wait for money to pay for them! [Laughter]
Interview with Antonio Ferrera
Boriss-Krimsky: How did you meet Al?
Ferrera: I was at a screening, and by chance, Al was there. Basically, I went up to him and said, "I want to show you my movie that I made with someone in Chicago about public housing [called "Voices from Cabrini"] and secondly, I just moved back to New York and I need a job." Al's response was, "I'll watch the movie but to tell you to the truth, it wouldn't be bad right now if I had a job too." That was kind of a joke because he had so much going on in his life. And so I started there. In Chicago, I was lucky to study with a lot of people who had been involved with SDS [Students For a Democratic Society], and with the Black Panthers, and in some ways, record what their contemporaries were doing in Chicago politics. It was hands-on learning and grassroots organizing, as well as learning how to make films within that atmosphere, because a lot of my teachers, like Judy Hoffman, were there in the '60s. They figured out that that film was a good way to spread the word. Plus, they're great craftsmen in Chicago. I was able to learn optical printing from them, animation and all the crafts of filmmaking. They were doing it all themselves, like the punk ethic.
Boriss-Krimsky: When did you and Al start collaborating?
Ferrera: It feels like six months that I've been working with Al, but it's been probably since about 1999, when I came back to New York. I've been also working on a lot of things on my own -- making a couple of different movies during the past five years, -- one about David Krakauer [klezmer musician], and the history and renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, and one is a music concert of John Zorn [avant-garde crossover composer and saxophonist], and his band Masada. Zorn has been known as the "godfather of downtown", but he was so criticized when he was younger, and even now, for the risks he took, sort of like Al, putting out new ideas and going with them, regardless of the reaction.
Boriss-Krimsky: Well, the Gates celebrates that kind of brave mind-set and expansive thinking too, and Central Park itself represents openness and freedom -- so, the whole project encompasses risk, but in a positive way.
Ferrera: Right! I can't help thinking about how this man [Central Park architect, Frederick Law Olmsted] created such an incredible landscape in an urban environment. It's all sculpted in such a way that you have these passages through nature within the heart of this city -- human highways of diversity that are interrelated, with people seeing each other -- but not in the act of working or getting someplace, but in the act of enjoying the world. So there's this design, and the history of New York City [coming together] ... and Central Park is a part of that, and the 1960s plays into it, and then, here comes the Christos, like a lightning rod! [Laughter] And they're inspired to speak to this original design, and address everything evocative that comes out of it. Part of the life of the Gates project is that it brought out everything that needed to be fixed about this dying gem. And here, twenty-six years later, the Gates encompasses the rebirth of Central Park.
Boriss-Krimsky | email@example.com