David and Albert Maysles
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Plexifilm DVD
Features: 5 Films About Christo & Jeanne-Claude
Reviews: Christo’s Valley Curtain
Reviews: Running Fence
Reviews: Christo in Paris
Umbrellas documents what is perhaps Christo’s most extensive project, to plant hundreds of giant umbrellas on the Pacific coasts of California and Japan. There is an obvious ethnological relevance to this — the umbrellas are either yellow or blue, to correspond with the dry and wet environments — yet the work results in unexpected repercussions that convey more about each culture than intended.
Christo travels to both coasts and lectures his intention in the project, displays preliminary sketches, and answers questions. The Americans first ask about the cost; in Japan, at a lecture in a university, the first question has to do with his selection of the umbrellas’ colors.
Umbrellas is the most stylistically varied of the Maysles’ films about Christo. Comprised mostly of 16-millimeter film (to which the brothers are religiously faithful), the film contains a number of shots of televised video, cropped so that a talking head will appear in an abstracted close-up. It is an uncharacteristic technique for the Maysles (at least, in their Christo films), and used often in this film.
During the two-week installation of the umbrellas, there were two deaths. A massive dust storm in California uprooted one of the umbrellas and it collapsed on a woman. In sympathy, Christo ordered all the umbrellas shut. Days later, upon their removal, a Japanese man was electrocuted.
The American family sues (the project is insured, and the case is settled out of court). The death of the Japanese man is handled differently: Christo and Jeanne-Claude attend his funeral, and his family apologizes for the tragedy.
When Christo speaks of his work he inherits a child’s capacity for wonder and excitement. His interest in eliciting these same emotions collectively, I presume, is what inspires each of his projects. Umbrellas is in most regards Christo’s most extensive success, but because of its magnitude results in unavoidable (as well as unexpected) cultural introspection.