Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Grey Gardens: With the Beales and the Maysles Brothers
1978, the now defunct downtown cabaret booked probably the strangest act to
grace its stage. “Little” Edie Beale was not very well reviewed, but she had a loyal
following that delighted to be personally welcomed back into to her idiosyncratic
life. You could argue she and her mother “Big” Edie Beale were the original “reality”
stars, but instead of television, it was David & Albert Maysles’ documentary
that introduced them into American pop culture. Nearly forty years after its
initial release, a new 2K restoration of the Maysles’ groundbreaking Grey Gardens (trailer here) opens this Friday at Film Forum.
Grey Gardens (edited by Ellen
Hovde and Muffie Meyer, with whom the Maysles shared directorial credits, along
with producer Susan Froemke) holds
the distinction of being the first documentary adapted as a Broadway musical
(but not the last, thanks to Hands on a
Hardbody). Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beale often had
songs in their hearts, but there was little money in their bank accounts, which
is why their titular Hamptons estate was in such a state of disrepair when the
documentarian brothers started filming them. Frankly, it was shocking to people
that residents of tony Georgica Pond could live like that, especially considering
they were Bouviers—the aunt and cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy
happens in Grey Gardens is not so
very different from what happens in reality TV today. Big and Little Edie
basically do their thing, which involves a good deal of bickering and the occasional
song. Eventually, they host a rather awkward dinner party, despite the ever
expanding holes in the walls, resulting from the constant gnawing of rats and
watching Grey Gardens for the first
time, viewers should try to see it through 1975 eyes, as best they can. At the
time, it was almost unbelievable how natural and unaffected the Beales are by
the Maysles’ cameras. It is not that they are oblivious, because they openly address
the filmmakers from time to time. They just seem to have a no inherent reservations
with sharing the intimate episodes of their lives. Arguably, they were decades
ahead of the wider culture in this respect.
contemporary audiences, Grey Gardens still
holds up, largely due to the singularly irrepressible personalities of its
subjects. Intellectually, we might also well understand how influential Grey Gardens has been in shaping popular
conceptions of the documentary. Yet on a baser level, four decades later, we
still get that voyeuristic sense of peeking in on the dirty linen of the
Kennedy-Bouvier family, with whom our collective fascination will probably
never fully subside.
cineastes will expect, the Criterion restoration looks terrific. In truth, the
colors have probably never popped as much as they do now. Oddly, but
appropriately, some of deep saturated hues (mostly supplied by Little Edie’s fashion
creations) evoke sense memories of Bert Stern’s concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which in its
very different way also offered an ironic perspective on a privileged, old
moneyed community—in that case: Newport, RI.
It is hard to imagine the contemporary
documentary as we now know it without Grey
Gardens. However, its considerable influence makes it easy to overhype in
an era when online over-sharing is the norm and MTV’s The Real World is old hat. Still, those intrigued by the extreme
mother-daughter relationship and the Beales’ high profile family connections
will find Grey Garden remains a strange and beguiling place to visit.
Recommended for anyone interested in the history and tradition of documentary
filmmaking, the restored Grey Gardens opens
this Friday (3/6) in New York at Film Forum.
Labels: Documentary, Maysles Brothers