Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Grey Gardens

I'm in the midst of a documentary spree. I suppose it was kick-started when I posted those clips from American Movie the other day. Last night, I watched Grey Gardens for the first time. If you don't know it, it was made by the Maysles brothers, who also made Gimme Shelter, which I found overwhelmingly dull. Gardens is great, though you might not think so from a straightforward description. It was filmed almost entirely inside the decaying mansion in East Hampton, New York, from which it took its name. The sprawling home was owned and occupied by Edith and Edie Beale, an aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy.

According to trusty Wikipedia:
In the 1970s, the First Lady's sister Lee Radziwill discussed creating a documentary with Albert and David Maysles about Jacqueline's girlhood in East Hampton. At about the same time the Edies made national attention when the National Enquirer ran an expose on the deplorable conditions in which the Beales lived. The Suffolk County, New York Board of Health made a raid, ordering them to clean up the property which was falling into disrepair and was being overrun with feral cats.
The house may have passed official muster by the time the Maysles filmed there, but it was still a mess -- spare, stained, neglected. Throughout the movie, Edie and Edith quarrel with each other, sing to each other, and recount old times to each other.

That's it. But there's enough pathos on display to cripple an army, and the Beale women turn out to be as quotable as they are seemingly crazy. (My favorite line comes when the two are looking through an old photo album. Edie was quite beautiful as a younger woman. Edith is bemoaning the fact that her daughter was never married and, after Edie makes a comment about one picture dating to around the time when Germany invaded France, Edith says, "France fell but Edie didn't fall.")

Edith is almost 80, a former singer who now (in 1975, when the movie was made) spends nearly every hour of the day in her bed, with several cats (not feral, I suppose, but plenty grimy) at her feet. Edie doesn't do much of anything, but she overdresses (given the family's lack of contact with anyone or anything, dressing at all was overdressing) and complains about how she had to come home nearly 25 years ago to care for her mother, leaving behind her dreams of success in New York. But given Edie's state of mind -- she can be sharp and funny, but she's also remarkably childlike and clearly imbalanced -- it's just as likely that she needed to come home, and that she's the one who was initially cared for in some way.

The filmmakers don't explicitly answer that or any other question about the Beales. The movie is a portrait of faded aristocracy, familial dysfunction, and hermetic life. Chances are that many of you have seen it (or at least heard of it), so I won't go on about the specifics.

Speaking more broadly, I wondered about the ethics of it. I'm glad the Maysles made it, but given how stark and lonely the women's existence was, it seemed especially invasive to have someone filming them in such intimate moments. Edie crowed about how much she loved the finished product -- it made her a cult star. (Edith died a year or two after its release.) The mother and daughter appear to have been on friendly terms with the Maysles, and I'm not making any particular accusations. But given Edie's frame of mind, I don't think that her being thrilled by the project absolves it of ethical inquiry.


Blogger litelysalted said...

God help me do I love docs that exploit crazy people, and this has got to be my favorite of them all. Have you seen Stevie yet? If you haven't, get thee to thy Netflix account!

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand why people question, especially on first exposure, I guess is closest to what I mean, whether there's exploitation going on with GG; these women are living so outside the norm that it's almost an automatic or necessary reaction to think they're being taken advantage of in some way.

Without getting way too deep into the idea of whether a "crazy" person can, by definition, be other than exploited in a situation like this, my feeling is that Little Edie's, in particular, imbalance or craziness or whatever doesn't preclude her exercising her own judgment over her participation in the film. Specifically, I don't think you need to hang your hat solely on her pleasure over the final product to conclude that she could and did choose to participate and that her choice isn't negated by her real and prceived "craziness." I guess my opinion is basically that I think Little Edie's capacity unltimately isn't as questionable as all that, and that I tend to think concluding the film is exploitative tends towards the overprotective or paternalistic (minus the gender stigma of the word).

At any rate, that's the sort of nerdy, probably overly analytical nutshell of where I come down on it, but I can certainly understand other viewers concluding otherwise. By all accounts, Little Edie was certainly pleased with the film-making process and its results--not that that is determinative of the exploitation question, but maybe it helps some with perspective.

4:39 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I agree with you, anonymous. I don't feel strongly that it WAS exploitative, but just that it's an open, interesting question. Like I said, I'm glad they made the movie, which makes me think I didn't find it cruel or anything...

And finally, "nerdy" and "overly analytical" are not just welcomed around here; they're encouraged.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Longrie said...

I just recently saw this film as well. I thought it was fantastic.

11:24 PM  
Blogger glittergirl said...

"stevie" is definetly a good recommendation. i am also reminded of "the devil and daniel johnston". after viewing that, i was troubled by the same issues mentioned here.

then i remembered my college days in social work. i worked at a group home for mentally retarded adults. we worked to teach those folks daily living skills to that they could someday move into their own apartments or houses.

when i started, i was shocked to find out the clients were "allowed" to date, go to bars, have sex, skip work, drink, smoke, etc...

when i got to know these people, i found that they were capable of making their own decisions, no better or worse then any of the "normal" people i knew. they knew what they wanted, what was right or wrong, and decided accordingly.

anonymus' comment, "concluding the film is exploitative tends towards the overprotective..." is the best way to put it.

sometimes, folks like daniel johnston or little edie, may be very different in their thinking. they may be a little niave or confused. but i do believe they can make decisions regarding their particular "gifts" and how they are shared with the world.

one more thing- is anyone reminded of dare wright and "the lonely doll" when watching GG?

1:22 PM  

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