June 15, 2015

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens (1975) is a descent into domestic insanity that one isn't likely to forget. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of it at Sunray Cinema here in Jacksonville. (It's playing this week, so if you have the opportunity, go see it.) This now-cult classic documentary showcases the lives of 79-year-old Edith Beale and her 56-year-old spinster daughter, Edie. They were kin to Jackie Kennedy (I believe Edith was Jackie's aunt on the Bouvier side), and that famous bloodline is the basis of their notoriety in Grey Gardens, because the deplorable state of their living conditions would otherwise be too normal to warrant media attention. 

The film opens by showing us a series of newspaper clippings reporting on the state of the Beales' dilapidated Long Island mansion, Grey Gardens, which is infested with raccoons and overrun by cats (and fleas) and allegedly has no running water. The Beales live an existence that up until then was seen only in campy drama. They are as pathologically stuck in the past as a character in a Tennessee Williams play (namely, Blanche DuBois), or the embittered Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Edie parades herself around in bizarre apparel, always crowned with a different variety of head scarf, and she rants to the camera with an astonishing lack of self-awareness. Her mother, Edith, always seems more lucid. 

Edie blames her mom for standing in the way of her plans (for a career and for marriage), although old black-and-white photos reveal a once stunning young woman with great presence. Who was really standing in her way? And Edith, who sits enthroned on a lumpy bed piled with junk and always occupied by at least one sluggish cat waiting for some canned liver pate, used to be a singer. She even has records, and she can still carry a tune. (One of her daughter's rants is a slam against the man who did Edith's arrangements, whom Edie apparently disliked with a vengeance.) 

The filmmakers--Albert and David Maysles--captured something quite profound in Grey Gardens. I'm not even sure what that something is. On the surface, watching--or maybe enduring--a movie like this feels tantamount to thumbing through one of the sleazy tabloids you see at the grocery store. But the Maysles brothers never lose sight of the dignity of their subjects. Their intent is not mockery, nor is it vulgar nosiness. I don't know exactly what their intent was, but watching the film, I never felt that they were trying to be unkind to the two Ediths. These women look as though they were plucked from a John Waters movie (Waters' own Edith, the looney, snaggletoothed Edith Massey of Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living, etc, certainly comes to mind), and like John Waters, the Maysles are lovingly fascinated by their subjects. (But, also, probably, aware of their potential marketability.) Waters has always possessed a healthy appreciation for insane people and their behavior. 

The Beales are apparently wealthy enough to live on their own terms, despite the wretched conditions of their estate and the relative reclusiveness they have invited on themselves. And as much as Edie complains about her mother (often threatening to leave), we see a twisted kind of dependence at work here, and that's where Grey Gardens feels particularly relevant, particularly universal. We all know someone--maybe it's ourselves--who is dependent on someone else. The complexity of those kinds of dependent relationships, which so frequently fester among family members, is what gives Grey Gardens such depth. The self-sustaining eccentricity of these ladies doesn't just serve as vile entertainment; it's reflective of so much more: our obsession with success and fame and youth, our often oppositional fears of alienation and dependence, and our inability to be honest with ourselves which (and here's where it really echoes A Streetcar Named Desire) necessarily binds us to a manufactured kind of truth instead. The world of Grey Gardens is a fragmented one, a mosaic of madness, cobbled together out of fleeting moments of sanity, a great many self-lies, the invisibility of being almost-famous, the collective inventory of junk that clutters the mind as well as the home, and hallowed, hollowed memories that reverberate through the mind like spectral sirens. It's a world all their own, and yet, it's a world that could easily be ours too. 

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