Sunday, September 19, 2010

#123: Grey Gardens

(David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, 1976)

Grey Gardens is a film that could easily degenerate into a discussion of the morality of exposure - and therefore exploitation - of sick people. Cinema by its very nature focuses attention on its subjects, and at its most simplistic level, there are only two approaches: glamorization and condemnation. Because the Maysles' took such a hands-off approach to Grey Gardens, the only conclusion (if one is to be negative about the portrayal of the Beales) is that they intended for Big and Little Edie to hang themselves with their own rope.

Certainly the mother and daughter are eccentric enough to do so. Torn between the genteel upbringing they both had and the squalor in which they both live, the two larger-than-life characters are so obviously disconnected from reality that they struggle to be believed as real people. Little Edie in particular is one of the most incredible characters ever put to film, giving the kind of performance that would get most actresses laughed out of a rehearsal. And yet here she is, not at all giving a performance but simply living her life.

I find it funny that a movie like this can be thought of as taking advantage of the misfit in society when I can't honestly imagine someone who entirely fits in in society enjoying the film. In fact, it's reputation as a midnight movie is a strong indication that it is precisely the people who struggle in mainstream society who see their own idiosyncrasies reflected in the Beales. 

Instead of being that (bad) documentary where people who are twisted and confused (and isn't that funny?), the movie is much more fascinated with these people, being both sympathetic and genuinely impressed with the arc of the lives of these women. It's also fundamentally about America, like all Maysles documentaries, in that it tells a story about class that makes mobility seem all the more likely, for better or worse. Grey Gardens, then, becomes a story not of exploitation or tragedy, but of uniqueness and missed opportunites - luck, really. The story of the ups and downs of the formerly ruling class, where modern America has no place for those who don't make their own way in the world, even if just to marry the right man or dance the right dance.

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