Sunday, May 10, 2009

Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles

This documentary focuses on Edith Beale aged 79 and her daughter Edie Beale aged 56 who live at Grey Gardens in unsanitary conditions. Their story drew public attention since Edith was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Edie her cousin. The house has decayed from neglect due to their poor income and is full of cats, fleas and raccoons. Both women love the cats and raccoons and Edie takes the time to feed the raccoons with Wonderbread and cat food. Their life is quite isolated from others in the community as they keep to themselves. A man delivers their groceries and leaves the box on the front steps without interacting with the women. Edie says, “I never know what time it is.” This portrays the separation between these eccentric women and the world which runs on a strict clock.

The film opens with newspaper clippings and pictures about the Beales and the condition of their house which has resulted in a threat of eviction from the government unless the house is thoroughly cleaned up. There are scenes were the women look through old photographs of themselves when they were younger and view a portrait leaning against a wall in the bedroom. As a viewer I felt these glimpses into their pasts helped create them as average people and make them not as eccentric. Interviews are done on location at Grey Gardens as the cameramen follow the Beale women around and converse with them. Edith and Edie sing and play records which provide the sound for the film. Other than the records there is no soundtrack which is good because Edie and Edith fill up the space with their words and do not leave much room for extra sounds.

Albert and David Maysles, the film makers, reveal their presence by speaking with the ladies, showing a boom mike in a few scenes, and appearing in others when their camera focuses on a mirror or when Edith takes a photograph of the brothers. They do not try to hide the fact that they are present at Grey Gardens. Albert and David did not comment upon the scenes that unfolded leading me to believe that this documentary was more objective than subjective. Throughout the film, the women chatter and give the viewer a sense that the film makers are letting the women tell the story and are not aiming for a certain depiction.

These women appeared eccentric to me with their clothing, isolation and decaying household, but the film showed a family. During the film, the women argue and complain just like a typical family. I wonder if the oddities about them were only present in my mind due to the early presentation of the newspaper clippings identifying the eviction situation. Edie repeatedly states that she is stuck at Grey Gardens and wishes she was anywhere else. She seems like a teenager rather than a 56 year old woman. The ending fits the story well in that it does not end with finality but rather the idea that their lives will continue the same way that they have been.

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