In some ways, you had to be there. But in other ways, tonight's HBO documentary, The Gates,captures much of the excitement, wonder and exhilaration of walking through Central Park three years ago, when artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude succeeded in mounting their two-week installation of thousands of saffron-colored gates throughout the park.
It was a vision they had pursued for decades, and The Gates (10 p.m. ET) wastes no time in retracing their steps. The first half of the documentary is devoted to the couple's efforts to persuade New York City officials to realize their dream. These efforts, amazingly, are presented in an amazingly thorough visual record, because Christo had enlisted filmmaker Albert Maysles to film them in 1979 as they approached lawyers and city officials, attended town halls and faced wearying and discouraging opposition.
Discouraging, but never successful. After 24 years, and a new administration headed by Michael Bloomberg, The gates project was approved: more than 7,000 16-foot gates erected along Central Park's paths, with brightly colored nylon flags hanging from them in the breeze.
The documentary, by Antonio Ferrera, Albert and David Maysles, and Matthew Prinzing, superbly shows the effect of The Gates, on the onlookers as well as the park. Through rain and shine, snow and darkness, this 2005 art installation was a thing of beauty, and a joy for... two weeks.
But what a joy. The sights are delightful, but so are the sounds, and The Gates smartly pays attention to them. One park visitor likens the enthusiastic opening-day chatter to the excited conversational buzz of a crowded theater lobby. Elderly men and their young grandchildren watch and laugh with equal amounts of awe, and the effect, on the people and the park, is nothing short of transformational.
The only thing this HBO program fails to point out is how people, walking under the gates, were eager to make eye contact, smile and converse - the exact opposite experience of the usual New York stroll. I visited The Gates several times, and felt lucky to so so. (The pictures on today's blog, taken by my friends and me, are proof.)
For the opening-day visit, I gave the women in our party saffron-colored pashmina scarves ($10 each, New Jersey Turnpike rest stop). They were a hit everywhere we walked - even with Christo and Jean-Claude, who were being driven around the park and stopped to call the ladies over to thank them for getting into the colorful spirit.
We thanked them right back. Their installation, The Gates, is everything I love about art. Just like the documentary The Gates is everything I love about television, and HBO, and that network's endlessly tasteful executive producer of documentaries, Sheila Nevins.