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.[/column] [column size=one_half position=last ]
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Last Updated: April 13, 2015