Friday, January 2, 2009

A Grey Area

A Happy New Year to you! Here's hoping 2009 will bring peace, health, happiness and (hopefully) prosperity to us all.

I have just finished watching and re-watching an off-beat but highly-engrossing documentary called Grey Gardens. Originally released in 1975, the title references a once grand estate that, like its owners, had fallen upon hard times.

The movie itself is far from grand, being devoid of special effects, voice-overs and sophisticated lighting, editing and camera work. But it is exactly that raw quality that makes it so incredibly real.

The camera (which, at times can be seen along with the cameraman in one mirror or another) is, for the most part, that fly on the wall we hear so much about. It captures the day-to-day lives of two rather eccentric women: Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her fifty-six-year-old daughter, “Little Edie.” They, despite the title of the film, are the real stars of this film, with their home playing a decidedly supporting – albeit important role.

Had it not been for the fact that the Beales were closely related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, I doubt that their story would be little more than a footnote to a local squabble between the ladies and the tony village of East Hampton, New York. But they were related to Jackie-O, which catapulted them into the spotlight.

Over close to forty years their story has been told and retold in articles and books, an off-Broadway show, two or three documentaries and a soon-to-be-released motion picture starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Despite all of this hubbub I had never heard of the Beale’s until I came upon Grey Gardens while sifting through Netflix's Documentary catalogue.

So what’s it all about, Alfie? It’s about promises kept and dreams quashed, it's about the ties that bind – both good and bad. It’s about having a sense (or no sense) of style. It's about dependence and independence. It’s about living in the past and yearning for the future. It's about love and caring and being caged and comforted by circumstance. But more than anything else, Grey Gardens is about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Set within the framework of cluttered bedrooms, an antiquated kitchen, wooden deck, overgrown garden and sandy beach, it is a tale worth telling, revealed through conversations between the ladies and the people who weave in and out of their lives.

The movie opens with a series of newspaper clippings describing the trials and traumas these women faced just prior to the start of filming. It seems that "the powers that be" had done everything in their power to evict them and tear down their home, which was deemed to be both an eye-sore and health-hazard. It would take some $23,000 (eventually donated by Jackie and Ari) to bring the home's heating and plumbing systems up to code, along with over one thousand garbage bags full of this and that to save it from the wrecking ball.

Set among a shoreline of palatial retreats, Grey Gardens is, even in its renovated state, in dire need of repair, with raccoons darting here and there through a hole in the kitchen wall that gets steadily larger as the film progresses. This is the insular world of Big and not-so-little “Little Edie.”

We learn a lot about these women as the film progresses, both through what they say, and the way that they say it. There is an affectation in their speech that tells us that they once led a privileged life, where boarding schools,coming-out parties, fine jewelry, antiques and great estates were the norm. During those years,(when Big Edie was still married, and Little Edie was young enough to draw admiring glances from equally affluent admirers) the Beales summered at Grey Gardens and lived as one would expect a family of their lineage and social standing to live.

There are hints as to why Big Edie's husband divorced her, where the money went, and why Little Edie (one of three children) would choose to forgo her own independence in order to take care of her mother, but only hints. And that is, in good part, what draws us into their story.

More than almost any film commentary, the commentary that is included on this particular DVD adds a great deal of insight and revelation. After watching it and hearing what the director and editors had to say about the women, their friends, the reaction of the film when it was released and what they personally took away from the experience, I felt compelled to watch the film again. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

During that commentary and the interviews that accompany it, much is said about the way Big and Little Edie phrased things - quotes people lovingly took away from the film and incorporated into their own vocabulary, where they remain to this day. Phrases like -

“I know exactly where it is. I just can’t find it.”

“I’ve been pulverized by the extent of the latest turn of events.”

“You don’t see me as I see myself.”

And – “You’ve had enough fun all your life.”

I'm sure you'll find one or two such phrases to call your own as well.

It is obvious that filmmakers were very fond of these ladies, though watching the documentary, you may, at times, wonder why, or what they saw that was so exceptional. That’s one of the reasons why watching the commentary after you've seen the piece is so important. It gives you an insight that you – or at least I – couldn’t get just from watching the film.

In the end, I was left with many questions about why the Beales did the things they did, and what had become of them... particularly Little Edie, who so yearned to have a life of her own. I found some of the answers within the commentary, and others on the Internet. Still others, - silly things like why Little Edie always covered her head with scarves, towels and sweaters (often held together by an over-sized broach) remain a mystery.

A final note - If you're a Food Network fan, you'll want to look for what is now Ina Garten's home. It can be found early on, as the camera pans the pricey waterfront properties that made up the Beale's neighborhood.

Grey Gardens is a great way to begin a new year of films. I hope you'll rent it, enjoy it, and share your thoughts with all of us bloggers.

Till the next time...

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