Cinophile: GREY GARDENS

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Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes. Some are deeply critical thought experiments, like Adam Curtis’ movies, film makers like Werner Herzog try to cut to the nerve of their subject, while others such as Michael Moore tend to carry their sentiments boldly on their sleeves. But the hardest type of documentary is arguably the one where the subject tells its own story: no narration and conveniently swapping between interviewees. Instead it’s a moment where the audience is simply let into someone’s life and make of it what they will.

Today that concept might seem ordinary, what with reality TV and all of that. But keeping up with the Kardashians is not quite the same as an honest exercise in voyeurism. The latter is a true art exercised by few film makers and Grey Gardens is one of the earlier examples of that. Called ‘direct cinema’, this style of filmmaking uses lightweight cameras to engage a subject on its own objective merits. Simply put, the story tells itself and few stories captured like that have been as mesmerizing as the tale of Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale.

The mother and daughter lived in a dilapidated mansion in a fashionable part of the United States. The aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy – then Onassis – the pair were nearly evicted from their home after local health authorities threatened to shut it down. Due to a series of financial misfortunes the older Edith Beale was living in poverty and her daughter, also Edith, had lived with her for the past 25 years to help the older Beale out.

The movie was shot in the early 1970s, soon after the issues with local authorities were resolved, but the Beales still live in squalor and removed from society. This, along with their own interesting personalities, has created a strange environment that borders on the surreal. Should the audience be disgusted or enchanted by these two people and their outlook on the world? Should we feel sorry for them or do we see something of ourselves in their antics?

Grey Gardens refuses to answer these questions and as such leaves every viewer with a different experience. Documentary fans will love it for its historical value in helping build a particular type of filmmaking. Though an eclectic piece of film making, Grey Gardens is not an artsy movie, but grounded in reality – yet refusing to dish up the manufactured realities so many other documentaries tend to wallow in.

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There is no narration in Grey Gardens and not even much of a structure. Instead the cameras follow the two main characters as they go about their lives in a dilapidated mansion. The mother and daughter were paid for their roles, but they were simply told to be themselves. After the movie was completed, they were given a private showing: the younger Edith called it a masterpiece.

 

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Grey Gardens‘ eccentricity is directly due to the characters, not the least the daughter. Once destined to be a movie star, after years in isolation looking after her mother the younger Edith sometimes regresses to the mannerisms of a teenager and varies from nonsensical musings to completely profound ideas. The mother, who used to be a famous singer, is equally interesting and curious in her ponderings and outbursts.

 

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The movie left its mark on society: today the Grey Gardens estate still exists after being fully restored by a new owner. It frequently attracts visitors due to the Beales’ fame. The film also led to a musical and a few years ago HBO released a dramatic movie based on the Beales, also called Grey Gardens and starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: April 13, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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