Monday, March 25, 2019

Doc superbly portrays Christo's immense project

Reviews below of a couple of films from the final day of the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa.

Andrey Paounov's Walking on Water, about the 2016 environmental art project of the famed landscape artist Christo, The Floating Piers, on northern Italy’s Lake Iseo, is a tour de force presentation of an artist and a project that makes Christo one of the most famous, imaginative and courageous artists of our time. (His partner and wife Jeanne-Claude, died in 2009.) The Christo of course is known for his vast outdoor projects like New York City’s The Gates in Central Park, northern California’s Running Fence, and Berlin’s Wrapped Reichstag. This documentary (there has been an earlier one about The Gates by Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles in 2007) takes us almost from beginning to end of the project. Christo is either so famous and so used to media that he doesn’t blink an eye when the camera follows him around his myriad daily routines in the project’s planning and execution, including petty frustrations with computers and staff, arguing with associates, and getting as good as he gives from primary assistant Vladimir Yavachev. But there is uplifting bonhomie too. It’s all part of the immense particularities of designing and building s four kilometre set of floating walkways. Christo’s projects are so immense they need various government approvals. But here in Italy, after the exhibit opens in June 2016, the crowds are so overwhelming Christo threatens to shut it down; the authorities have done little to limit access or maintain crowd control. This documentary is best at portraying the daily realities of creating art on a mammoth scale, and its vast sweep of outdoor visuals – to the thrilling electronic soundtrack of Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi – are breathtaking.

I have always had a soft spot for Michigan’s own Jeff Daniels but his latest film, Guest Artist, is a flop from beginning to end. The premise is good. An arrogant New York playwright is seconded by a flyover country theatre troupe (“Lima” Michigan filling in for Daniels’s own Chelsea) to write a play. It’s an obvious sign that the playwright, Joseph Harris, a drunk, is all washed up. But when Harris arrives at the local train station, he’s greeted by the town’s aspiring playwright Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias). Needless to say, the fawning Macias – “to me you are the American theatre” - has to put up with Harris’s verbal abuse. “An artist never apologizes,” the playwright shouts in infuriated angst. The problem with the film is there should be more, a lot more. The entire film is shot at the train station between basically two characters. I was expecting the playwright to end up in town with the local theatre company, lording it over the ensemble cast in a series of vignettes but ending up hoisted on his own petard. Instead, what we get is essentially the filmed 2006 stage play. And, finally, it’s annoying that the Harris character, as the theme of his greatest yet to be performed play, dredges up an old trope about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, saying they were “the best thing that happened to this fat arrogant excuse for a country.” In 2006 such thinking, at least by people of a certain ilk, was par for the course. But, hey Jeff, it’s 2019, time to move on.

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