In December 2008, I attended the International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas. I participated on a panel with the esteemed Richard Lorber who, after some back and forth on the panel about the economics of film distribution and film festival budgets, told me at dinner about Alive Mind, his company's recent expansion into digital and documentary film, and their first foray into distribution under this label, Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles’ documentary The Gates. I was intrigued by the label and Richard's plans and, very much a fan of Maysles' films about the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I discussed the possibility of a full retrospective of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude films. Richard was encouraging. Once I was back in New York, Richard put me in touch with Antonio Ferrera, who shared my excitement and who put me in touch with Christo and Jeanne-Claude's office directly. I left them a voice mail and hoped for the best.
The next day, I found a message on my cell phone; "Hello Tom, this is Jeanne-Claude. We heard your proposal and are indeed very interested. Please fax a written proposal to our offices and we look forward to coming to Sarasota."
That message set into motion a months-long conversation with Jeanne-Claude who, despite a reputation as a tenacious and meticulous advocate for framing the discussion around her art, was one of the kindest people with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working. It was her kindness that enabled the festival to approach the filmmakers and distributors required to assemble our retrospective of the twelves films in which she and her partner Christo participated, films that today seem that much more moving, profound and, most important of all, reflective of the temporary nature of life and art. This retrospective offered me a chance to dive into their work in depth and, having always been a little suspicious of their methods (but loving the dialogue the films and their works inspired), I came away from the experience with my opinion of their work entirely transformed by the beauty and meaning it brought to the time and place in which it existed.
One of the great challenges of presenting art in America is the general literalism of the American mind; everything must mean something and that meaning must be adjudged to be of relative value to the meaning of other things. It is an economic way of thinking, a religious way of thinking, a moralistic way of thinking but so very often it is not a creative way of thinking. Art and aesthetics are too often seen as elitist, a luxury and the territory of scoundrels instead of as democratic, moving and beautiful. The impact of our thinking about art has shaped the way in which we fund, experience and discuss art as a society and, most important to me personally as a lover of movies, has too often turned the meaning of art into a discussion of its monetary value; is that painting really worth that much money? What does it say about our country that that film made however many millions at the box office? We are not a society that loves art, but rather, a society that loves business. Watching and learning about the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, I found myself experiencing the welcome obliteration of these ideas, of this business worship. When you experience their work, the discussion of values shifts completely, from the issue of cost (the artists raise their own money) to the issue of scale, from the meaning of consumption to the dynamics of experience, from interpretation to feeling. I found myself constantly and irrevocably moved by them, their ideas, their work.
At the festival this year, one of the great highlights for me was to introduce Christo and Jeanne-Claude to a packed house after our screening of The Gates and to be rendered immediately irrelevant as Jeanne-Claude grabbed the microphone and engaged the audience directly; these are the moments you live for as a programmer, to see a full theater in dialogue, filled with laughter and joy. I got the feeling this was common for Jeanne-Claude and Christo; their defense of their art and their communion with people seems to me an essential part of the purpose of the work itself. The films work so well as a vehicle for that dialogue because they not only capture the works as they exist in time (although fractured, removed, incomplete), but the monumental administrative procedures required to undertake them; you feel an intimacy with the creative process that is so often absent from the public discussion of art. Jeanne-Claude and Christo seemed to inhabit that space with the same ease with which they remained true to their creative vision. Watching the pair of them in action, it was clear that all of it and everything is the work.
Last Thursday, my birthday, I heard the sad news that Jeanne-Claude had passed away. I was tremendously saddened to learn of her passing, but I was heartened to hear what I had always assumed to be true; that Christo would be carrying on their work, keeping their promise to make art, come what may and no matter what. The couple, and they will always remain a couple to me, have several projects that remain incomplete, and nothing will honor Jeanne-Claude's memory more than to see each of them realized. I am personally most excited to see the Over The River project realized; if and when the project is approved and up, I have promised myself that I will be there to see it and, I hope, to paddle under a sky of fabric down the Arkansas River. But most of all, I am truly honored that we were able to assemble this retrospective, to host and celebrate Jeanne-Claude and Christo at our festival, and to have had our work live in their orbit for a few days. It was something I will never forget and, now that Jeanne-Claude has passed away, a moment that will remind me of the power and purpose of cinema in my own life. May she rest in peace and long may her work continue.
Sarasota Film Festival Board President Mark Famiglio, Jeanne-Claude, Christo and The Gates Director Antonio Ferrera at the 2009 Sarasota Film Festival
(Photo: Heather Dunhill for The Sarasota Herald Tribune)