Thursday, January 11, 2007

Grey Gardens - Maysles Brothers (1976)

A documentary of particular note, Grey Gardens.

An old lady and her daughter (relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis) live alone in a huge, untended East Hampton house, eating ice cream and remembering the past. There is a passion and eccentricity that fill both of these women, and they fill this empty house. At times, the house seems too small for the both of them! Big Edie was an incredible singer, making records when she was younger, and also a mother of three (or four, I can't remember). Little Edie was a bombshell, a dancer and model, who rejected the men that got past her mother. Talking, always talking the both of them, and at the same time. Putting each other down, arguing about minor details from the past. Big Edie roosts in her bed as if it were a throne, cooking or looking at black-and-white photos, and always a word for her daughter. But she does it in such an unorthodox way, obsessively adjusting the brim of a floppy hat, peering through her bent glasses, that she comes off as a harmless old lady. We know that she has a hold on her daughter though: she has kept her daughter by her side for the majority of her daughter's adult life.

It is Little Edie that intrigues me the most. She says over and over how much she wants to get out of the house, out of the Grey Gardens as they call it. But Little Edie is 56 years old, and has been living with her mother for almost 25 years. She wears costumes and dances around the house as if she were constantly putting on a show. Edie reminds me of a movie star of old, glamorous and dramatic in her own way (she's fond of skirts and stockings). Sometimes in the monologues Edie delivers, she has the sensibility of a teenager, nitpicking and gossiping. But other times, she philosophizes as if she were the only person in the world at that moment. I believe that even if the cameras weren't there, she would still dance and talk to herself.

There are cats and raccoons everywhere in the delapidated house. The gardens themselves are overgrown, and from the balcony of the estate, where the two sunbathe, you could walk across the tops of the trees to the ocean.

There is no narrator here, there are only the two women talking. Once in a while one of the Maysles, holding camera and sound equipment show up in the film, pointing the camera at a mirror or taking an offered snack. But this is Little and Big Edies' show. There are all sorts of beautiful moments in this superb example of cinema verite. More people will be able to see it now that it's recently come out on Criterion. And you should see it too.

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