Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Backfilling: "Grey Gardens (1975)"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

Grey Gardens, the iconic 1975 documentary directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer, is a fascinating look at two very odd women. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” became tabloid fodder in the early 1970s when it was discovered that these relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were living in squalor at their East Hampton summer home; conditions had gotten so bad there that the property was in danger of being condemned. The Maysles brothers first met the Beales when they were preparing a documentary about the entire Bouvier clan; their fascination with the sisters (and the lack of enthusiasm from Onassis) caused them to re-focus the film to just the two women.

The resulting film is impeccably assembled in their unique “direct cinema” style; the duo are keenly observed, with details of their lives present but not pushed. Of particular note is the casual, conversational way that we found out their biographies (no voice-overs or outside experts here), and the odd way that editors Hovde, Meyer, and Susan Fromke manage to build a three-act structure around two women whose lives never change.

But, as is so often the case in documentary film, the film succeeds or fails based on the quality of the “characters” within, and holy Christ is this a pair of characters. The mere rhythms of their conversations are funny, to say nothing of their wild New England accents and charmingly scrambled manner of speech (“I’m pulverized by this latest thing!” Little Edie proclaims at one point; at another, she announces, “I only care about three things: the Catholic Church, swimming, and dancing”). Their interactions with the filmmakers, who are trying their best to remain detached, also provide humor (Little Edie all but screams to her mother, about a particular photograph, “I WANT TO SHOW IT TO AL!”) and pain (when Little Edie tells a story that Big Edie disagrees with, she proclaims to the camera, “You’re wasting that thing on this, because that’s just nuts”).

By necessity of honestly representing the endless cycle of their days together (listen to records, sing songs, have fights, eat, and repeat), the film is, yes, somewhat monotonous, and it could only have been improved by lopping off a good ten minutes or so in the middle. But Grey Gardens is a remarkable document all the same—a candid, unflinching look at two women who, decades before “reality television,” were willing to show their lives in all its ugliness for, seemingly, no better reason than because they wanted to be in a movie.

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