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Tea for two
A UK region 0 DVD review of GREY GARDENS by Slarek
 

Here's a phrase for you, a sweeping generalisation but with truth at its core:

We all judge by appearances.

You may not believe this applies to you, that you never form an opinion based on how a person looks or behaves. And bless you if that's true, as you are, I would venture, a genuinely rare creature. (Bit of advice, though, if someone runs towards you screaming angrily and brandishing a knife, I'd get judgemental real quick – it might just save your life.) Even if you do not make actual decisions based on first impressions, I'll wager that deep down, in that bit you keep hidden from public view, you still have a momentary flash that attempts to read something about those you meet, whether it be based on expectations, experience, social conditioning or even snobbery, either inverted or the regular sort. I'm no different. I'll shake hands with anyone, but still get a twinge when introduced to anyone wearing a grey suit and a smile.

When Grey Gardens was released back in 1976 it ran foul of such attitudes, and if a few of the comments I've encountered on-line are anything to go by it continues to do so. Made by two of the pioneers of Direct Cinema, Albert and David Maysles (who here share the directing credit with editors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer), the film takes us into the world of a mother and daughter who share the name Edith Beale and are known respectively as Big Edie and Little Edie. Both women were former members of New York's high society scene and Little Edie – full name Edith Bouvier Beale – was a first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill. Are you forming a picture of the two yet? Surprisingly easy, isn't it.

When first encountered by the Maysles, however, the two women had effectively dropped out of high society and society in general to live a reclusive life in their East Hampton mansion house, which had become so run down that it had been the subject of a raid by the Suffolk County Health Department. When we meet them, Big Edie is spending a good part of her time in bed in her unkempt bedroom, Little Edie keeps her hair covered at all times with anything from traditional head scarves to tied pullovers, cats roam the house and use just about anywhere as a toilet, the garden is a jungle that almost requires a machete to negotiate, and Edie leaves bread out for the raccoons that live in the attic, a good part of which the animals have destroyed. And close though the two women obviously are, they'll argue about almost anything. How's that picture looking now?

Some of those reviews I mentioned earlier, the less favourable ones, were tinged with a sense of outrage that once well-to-do women, women directly related to the country's most popular First Lady, could allow themselves to sink so low, and even worse that the Maysles had somehow thought them a fit subject for a feature documentary. Charges of exploitation were hurled from a number of quarters, notably Walter Goodman in The New York Times and the venerable Pauline Kael, whose review was peppered with false claims about the making of the film (not the first time she had levelled such charges against the Maysles, as it happens). There was the sense that Grey Gardens was being seen as a cinematic fairground sideshow, a voyeuristic invasion of private lives that, because they were different to our own, were being put on display for the paying public to gawk at.

Now before I stumble blindly to the filmmakers' defence I should say that this must have been a difficult call at the time, as it always is with any documentary work that gets intimately and perhaps uncomfortably close to its subject. As is the way with Direct Cinema – a documentary form in which formal interviews and narration have no place – this is an observational piece for which only the slimmest of contexts is provided (newspaper headlines about the health board raids and this impending film), leaving the viewer to fill in quite a few blanks themselves. None of which washes when talking about reviewers in Goodman or Kael's position, for whom a little research and the odd phone call would hardly have been a major upheaval to their daily routine. The obvious eccentricity of both Beale women has also raised the question of how aware they were of what they were letting themselves in for. But both of the Beales were apparently delighted with the finished film and Little Edie even wrote a letter to Walter Goodman in support of it and the Maysles, but his paper refused to publish it on the grounds that they considered Edie to be "schizophrenic."

But elsewhere the film was met with considerable favour and is even regarded by some as the Maysles' masterpiece. The frequently argumentative relationship between mother and daughter is one that clearly touched a nerve with many of the film's admirers, with Big Edie's sudden bursts of song (at 79 she can still hold a tune) and Little Edie's creative clothing, impromptu dances and whispered confidential asides to the filmmakers having an element of camp that helped make it one of the few documentaries to achieve midnight movie cult status. The couple's refusal to conform to the expectations of their social background saw them transformed into symbols of free expression for counter-culture America, and Little Edie's individualistic dress sense had the most unexpected effect of making her a fashion icon in the years that followed the film's release.

Their living conditions will still doubtless freak out those with an obsession for tidiness and order (good thing too), but as someone who lives and thrives in chaos in a house that is crumbling from the inside, I immediately warmed to both women. With no specific story to tell, any film made in the Direct Cinema style needs one thing above all others and that's characters who are interesting, and the Beales are certainly that. Their conflicts may be loud – they regularly talk over one another to get their side of stories across to the Maysles – but their pains and insecurities are really no different to those that afflict any one of us. Little Edie in particular appears to have walked willingly into a trap whose jaws she is all too comfortable with, despite her protestations and seemingly desperate need to return to the bustle of the city. Repeatedly she confides to or performs for the camera away from her mother, only to be summoned by shouts that echo through the house, calls she always responds to and only once under any sort of protest. Her bond to her mother is clearly evident beneath the arguments – late in the film she explodes with anguish at the lack of men in her life and lays the blame squarely at her mother's door, but reacts very negatively to the moving in of young handyman Jack (whose relationship with the women is never clearly defined) and her mother's fondness for him, clearly resenting this funneling off of even part of Big Edie's attention.

There seems little doubt that both women, who willingly expose aspects of their lives that most would want to keep hidden, are performing for the camera to some degree (they are, after all, both faded performers themselves), but it is clearly in their nature to do so and does not detract from the truth that lies at the heart of all the Maysles' work. The interaction between the the filmmakers and their subjects is very much part of this, an openness about a relationship that is usually kept hidden, but one that has been there since the early days of Direct Cinema and evident in such key genre works as Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor's Lonely Boy (1962) and Stravinsky (1965). This interaction has been identified by some as one of the things that distinguishes Direct Cinema from Cinéma Vérité, the latter a label that is often applied to the Maysles' work that they themselves do not use.

Grey Gardens is an enthralling and fascinating film, but it will be down to personal taste whether it really does rank as the Maysles' masterpiece. For myself I'll still go with Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), but only by a nose. I came to Grey Gardens later than those other two films and have yet to get as many viewings of it under my belt or see the recent follow-up film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, which was assembled from footage not used here. And despite a lack of cats and badgers (I'm not a big animal lover), I've already taken to referring to my house, with its crumbling plaster, overload of unorganised papers, rampant garden growth and untidy piles of review discs, by the name of the house located at 3 West End Avenue in East Hampton, New York, and the one that gives this film it's title.

sound and vision

The correctly framed 4:3 transfer here appears to have been sourced, as with the Masters of Cinema release of Salesman, from the US Criterion release, hence the decision to release an NTSC rather than PAL disc to avoid any standards conversion issues. Shot on what looks like high speed 35mm stock, the grain is very evident throughout, but this is very much part of the Direct Cinema aesthetic and not a problem. Colours are true to life within lighting and film stock restrictions, and contrast and black levels are very good.

The Dolby mono 1.0 sound is as clear as the location recording difficulties will allow, with only the odd mumbled or whispered line requiring a rewind or activation of the subtitle track, which again has been adapted from the Criterion disc but painstakingly anglicised for this UK release.

extra features

Albert on Grey Gardens (30:57)
An interview with Albert Maysles conducted at his studio by Mark Rance and Craig Keller, recorded at the same session, I would imagine, as the one on Masters of Cinema's Salesman DVD. As with that interview, the camerawork is a bit wobbly in places and a few of the golden rules are completely ignored (shooting your subject against a window so that he goes into silhouette, zooming in and reframing mid sentence), and the sound has again beenboosted to make it audible, which also brings up the background noise and still leaves moments lost in a mumble (someone, please, buy Rance a clip mic). But I'm prepared to forgive a lot for the content, which is once again great stuff, covering how the project came about, their relationship with the Beales, the criticism of the film, the changing nature of documentary film and more besides, all in thoroughly engaging fashion.

Jerry's Cab (9:43)
Mentioned by Albert in the interview above, this is a small portion of footage shot by him and Robert Leacock (son of Vérité pioneer Richard Leacock) of Jerry, the young handyman from the film, in the New York cab he now drives for a living. He talks about the four years he spent with the Beales and the film itself, including the accusations of exploitation, which he refutes.

Past & Present (11:20)
Albert and Lily Greenfield-Sanders take Jerry back to Grey Gardens, where he wanders the grounds and affectionately recalls the time he spent there.

Theatrical Trailer (2:14)
A commentary-free trailer that mixes extracts with positive quotes.

TV Trailer (0:37)
This one does have a voice-over.

summary

Grey Gardens is a rare example of a documentary that has achieved genuine cult status, and the appearance of this DVD version couldn't be better timed. Along with the release of the above-mentioned The Beales of Grey Gardens (available in the US from Criterion as a well priced stand-alone or a double pack with this film), last year this film became the basis for a stage musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Later this year we can expect to see the feature film adaptation, written and directed by Michael Sucsy and starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as Little Edie and Big Edie respectively. And I couldn't help wondering if the decaying mansion setting was at least a small influence on Gus Van Sant's haunting Last Days.

Once again I can't help but mourn the absence of the excellent commentary found on the Criterion disc, this one by Albert Maysles and editors Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, plus a couple of useful interviews (including one with Little Edie done for Interview magazine in 1976). But the Masters of Cinema disc has some nice extras of its own, and if you can live without the commentary then this is a very worthwhile purchase and a must-see for documentary fans and true outsiders everywhere.

Grey Gardens

USA 1975
95 mins
directors
David Maysles
Albert Maysles
Ellen Hovde
Muffie Meyer

DVD details
region 0
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Interview with Albert Maysles
Jerry's Cab featurette
Past & Present featurette
Theatrical traiiler
TV traiiler
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
30 April 2007
review posted
28 May 2007

Related reviews
Salesman
The Gates

See all of Slarek's reviews