Saturday, August 20, 2005

Grey Gardens (Hovde/Maysles/Maysles/Meyer, 1975)

The most difficult part of discussing Grey Gardens is simply knowing where to begin. I could tell you the basics – that the film is a documentary about an eccentric mother and daughter who just happen to be relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis living in a dilapidated mansion and reminiscing about family history – but this would not even scratch the surface of what is a superbly entertaining and profoundly emotional film experience. Like most great films, Grey Gardens operates on multiple levels. As we see two women trapped together in the same house, oscillating between extreme affection and fierce bickering while raccoons slowly but surely eat their way through one of the interior walls, we might think of the existential absurdity of a dark Samuel Beckett comedy. But the film is also a skillful character study, a tense family drama, a subtle yet engaging mystery and a fascinating demonstration of the fine line documentarians must walk between being cordial enough with their subjects to inspire trust and being distant enough to avoid becoming a significant part of the story.

Perhaps it is best to begin with Little Edie Beale, the ultra-flamboyant 56-year old that has become a kind of ironic fashion icon, with her upside-down skirts, unusual color combinations and ever-present head coverings. Despite her actual age, Little Edie is very much like a 15-year-old still waiting for her opportunity to get out and really live life. She has perhaps more confidence in her ability to sing and dance than is actually warranted, and claims that at least one opportunity to be artistically recognized was thwarted by her mother. We learn that Little Edie had opportunities to marry more than once, to men of wealth and importance and when we see photographs of her early beauty, we are no longer skeptical. All this does not stop her from vamping for the camera like a neo-Norma Desmond. Little Edie is more than ready for her close-up and, on occasion, literally gets near enough to the lens to go out of focus. The full impact of Little Edie’s personality cannot be understated. It must be seen to be believed. Simply put, she is simultaneously one of the most bizarre and the most endearing characters I have seen on film. Bizarre because she flaunts aspects of herself that others might find embarrassing and lives her life in a constant state of emotional magnification. Endearing for the very same reasons.

Her mother, 80 years old and also named Edith, was once a professionally trained singer. For the most part, Big Edie is confined to her bed. When she does descend the stairs, it is only for a very special occasion. Early on, we see Big Edie sunbathing in an outfit that reveals much of her wrinkled chest. When her daughter observes that she may not be wearing enough clothing, Big Edie is unfazed, warning that she’s about to get naked. This moment demonstrates several aspects of Big Edie’s character – that in her advanced age she is still mentally sharp, that she is a woman with a sense of emotional security that her daughter lacks and finally that she is a woman who realizes she is beyond the point where vanity in connection with her physical appearance makes a whole lot of sense. Though she apparently interrupted her musical career before it could really take off, some of the film’s most poignant moments come as we observe her sitting in bed, listening to old recordings of herself and wistfully singing along. The result is a ‘duet’ that spans decades. By cutting between a bed-ridden old woman and a very flattering portrait of Big Edie in her youth, the filmmakers underscore a devastating paradox. The two voices sound the same. They ostensibly emanate from the same being. But can it really be said they are the same woman? One has her entire life ahead of her. One has a life that has already been written.

The other key characters in the film are the Maysles brothers themselves, who spent six weeks in the Beale home filming the everyday life of these two women with the prescient notion that somewhere in their visit would emerge a film. The Maysles do no editorializing. Only a few brief moments of newspaper clippings quickly set the context for the characters and their living situation. There is no courtroom trial or impending crisis to provide any sort of ‘plot’ for their film. Most of what we see is simply conversation. However, through masterful editing and a rare sensitivity to their subjects, the film makers are able to construct a film with a more solid three-act structure than most of the works of fiction that roll off the Hollywood conveyor belt. It would have been easy for the Maysles to revel in the bizarre nature of their subjects, mine them for comedy and make them look foolish. But, it is painfully clear that the Maysles have sincere affection for the Beales. They celebrate their eccentricity as non-conformity. They acknowledge the difference, but also beautifully document the humanity. We may laugh, but we also learn. The Beales’ conflicts and anxieties are not very different than our own; they simply live at a much higher volume.

I feel confident recommending Grey Gardens to just about anyone, because there are so many ways to appreciate it – as drama, as comedy, even as camp. It raises significant questions about documentary ethics and what sort of relationship film makers should have with their subjects. Perhaps most importantly, it is a profound illustration of how critical moments in our lives can lead us to destinations that we never could have imagined.



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