Before Seeing ‘Walking on Water’ at TIFF, Revisit the Maysles Classic ‘Christo’s Valley Curtain’
By Pat Mullen
Christo might best be know as an internationally renowned environmental artist, but he’s also a documentary icon. The Bulgarian-born daredevil of the arts is famous for his site and time specific installations that harness the magic of a unique environment for a short duration of time. He appears in the new film Walking on Water by Bulgarian director Andrey Paounov (The Boy Who Was a King) to complete an installation of floating piers upon an Italian lake—a project he conceived years before with his late wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude .
Before seeing Christo drape the waters of Italy in orange fabric, doc fans should revisit a classic short film that first captured one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most iconic projects. The 1974 doc Christo’s Valley Curtain by Albert and David Maysles and Ellen Giffard observes the artists as they plan and execute the installation of a giant curtain above the small town of Rifle Gap, Colorado. Spanning a quarter-mile 365 feet above ground, the curtain was a feat of contemporary art comprised of over nine tonnes of orange nylon polymide fabric. The project was self-financed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude to the tune of $700,000.
Christo’s Valley Curtain captures the innovation of seeing a relationship between public space, the natural environment, and art. It’s one of the best capsules of the artistic process in action and a cornerstone of verité documentary filmmaking. The Maysles filmed other installations by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the films Running Fence (1978), Islands (1986), Christo in Paris (1990),Umbrellas (1994), and The Gates (2007), but Christo’s Valley Curtain is arguably the strongest of them.
Back in 1974, Christo’s Valley Curtain left Vincent Canby scratching his head at The New York Times, writing, “The film is the marvelous reportage of the sort the Maysles Brothers do best, but it brought out every philistine feeling I’ve ever had.” More recently, Nathan Rabin at The AV Club appreciated the way the film captured Christo’s eccentric genius. “In Christo,” writes Rabin, “the Maysles find a fascinating and dynamic protagonist, a mercurial, lanky, heavily accented, intermittently incomprehensible iconoclast whose Coke-bottle glasses, long black hair, and intense demeanor make him look like a cross between Kramer from Seinfeld and a deranged monk. In attitude and bearing, Christo is like a religious fanatic whose religion is art. In the early films especially, Christo interacts with drawling, homespun Americans who must see him as some sort of space alien from the Planet Art.”
On the film’s 40th anniversary, The Denver Post reported that Christo and Jeanne-Claude took not a cent from the town of Rifle Gap and left some elements of the project behind as a monument that remains an attraction. Christo’s Valley Curtain received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, Short Subjects and is a staple on syllabuses in film and documentary courses.
Watch Christo’s Valley Curtain below. (And stay tuned for more on Walking on Water during the fest!)