Christo's environmental-art projects often bear an inverse relationship to most artists' aims and techniques. While many work alone to create art for galleries and private collections, Christo's mammoth undertakings involve huge crews–for instance, the 1983 Surrounded Islands project, in which 6.5 million square feet of bright-pink fabric was set afloat around 11 Miami-area islands. Where many aspire to command millions for their art, Christo spends millions of dollars of his own money to make art with no commercial prospects. And, where many artists dream of their work being admired and preserved throughout the ages, his works derive much of their almost mystical power from their transience: Each has a finite shelf life, generally of only a few weeks.
Then again, through their decades-long relationship with legendary documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, Christo and his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude have found a way to keep their projects ephemeral while preserving them for posterity. Plexifilm's 5 Films About Christo & Jeanne-Claude box set lovingly collects five Maysles documentaries, beginning with 1973's Oscar-nominated Christo's Valley Curtain and ending with 1994's tumultuous Umbrellas.
Each film is rife with inherent drama, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude battle bureaucracy, weather, and countless other variables endemic in mounting projects of such size and scope. In Christo, 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.
Like Christo's projects, the Maysles' documentaries each stand on their own, but they gain power and meaning from their context within their creators' work. Christo's grand-scale projects all seem like part of the same overarching, wildly ambitious plan to challenge, critique, and transform the way art is created, processed, and consumed. Themes and conflicts reappear from film to film, but each has its own distinct personality. Christo In Paris uses Christo's efforts to wrap the Pont Neuf Bridge in gold-colored fabric as the springboard for an extended reverie on the couple's enduring relationship and dramatic early courtship. In Umbrellas, Christo's attempt to simultaneously open hundreds of umbrellas in Japan and southern California leads to tragic consequences, due to weather that imperils not only the project, but also the lives of crewmembers.
The Maysles' accomplishment here is formidable, but their subjects' Herculean endeavors dwarf it. Only crazy dreamers like Christo and Jeanne-Claude could make five gorgeous and evocative films, made on multiple continents over a period of decades, seem like a modest accomplishment by comparison.