J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Grey Gardens: With the Beales and the Maysles Brothers

In 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 hereopens 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 Onassis.

What 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 raccoons.

When 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.

For 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.

As 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.

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