Magazine article The New Yorker

SECRET GARDEN; ON SECOND THOUGHT Series: 3/4

Magazine article The New Yorker

SECRET GARDEN; ON SECOND THOUGHT Series: 3/4

Article excerpt

It seems difficult to imagine that the owners of Madison Square Garden, who refer to it, rather boisterously, as the World's Most Famous Arena, would object to the release of a documentary about the Garden that had been filmed, with their consent and cooperation, by one of the world's most acclaimed directors. But then these owners--the Dolan family, under the aegis of the Cablevision Systems Corporation--are an odd lot, evidently as fond of discord as they are leery of the bad press that arises from it. And the director, Frederick Wiseman--who made such withering documentaries as "Titicut Follies" and "Hospital"--certainly has a history of inspiring what you might call cooperation regret.

More than a decade ago, Wiseman had the idea of chronicling the goings on at the Garden. "I'd always been fascinated by this place where so many different forms of entertainment came together under one roof," Wiseman, who is seventy-five, explained last week. "Hockey, basketball, wrestling, the circus--it's unique in American culture." In 1997, Wiseman made a formal approach to an acquaintance who had become a Garden executive. Before long, David Checketts, who was the Garden's chief executive at the time, and who was not familiar with Wiseman's work, signed off on the idea and granted him full access. During February and March of 1998, Wiseman, under the watchful eye of the Garden's p.r. chief, Barry Watkins, shot more than a hundred hours of 16-mm. footage, recording the bustle and tedium surrounding such events as the N.B.A. All-Star game, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the Westminster dog show, as well as Rangers and Knicks games.

The result, which is called, with characteristic concision, "The Garden," is standard-issue Wiseman cinema verite: clever juxtapositions forming a subtle commentary on American life, no narration necessary. The film opens with a four-minute sequence of circus elephants parading through the streets of New York at night, on their way into the Garden; the viewer, once inside, almost never leaves, except for occasional exterior shots of homeless people and passersby. We see employee training sessions, locker-room meetings, cat-show preparations, and, in painstaking detail, the process of converting the Garden floor into a sheet of ice for a hockey game.

Wiseman's cameras also capture three closed-door meetings in which Garden management discusses its strategy for labor negotiations. These sequences were apparently what jarred Garden executives after Wiseman sent them a videotape of the movie, last November. Back in 1997, Wiseman had agreed in writing that the Garden would have final approval over the film, although the contract, he said last week, stipulated that approval could not be "unreasonably withheld" and had to do only with issues of confidentiality. Wiseman needed the Garden to sign off on the movie within weeks; the Sundance Film Festival was planning to give "The Garden" its American premiere on the afternoon of January 22nd, and the movie was scheduled to be shown soon thereafter at a retrospective in Vienna, at the Berlin Film Festival, and, in March, on PBS.

After a couple of weeks, Wiseman got a letter from a Garden attorney, Robert Brandon, saying that the company would withhold permission for its release unless Wiseman agreed to make some changes. The lawyers wanted him to cut dialogue from the management-meeting scenes, on the ground that it revealed proprietary information about business strategy. …

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