Title: Grey Gardens
Genre: Documentary, Comedy, Drama
Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale
Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale
The illustrious apotheosis of “direct cinema” in the documentary trend, Maysles Brothers’ GREY GARDEN (Hovde and Meyer received co-directing credit for their brilliant editing work), thrusts squarely into Big Edie and Little Edie’s life in the titular, dilapidated residence in East Hampton. The relatively schematic newspaper articles give viewers barebones information of these two women, relatives of Jackie O, symbol of the detritus of old money, choose an eccentrically reclusive life behind the overlaying verdancy.
Their quotidian activities encompass bickering, prating, sun-bathing on the terrace, eating can food (feeding cats and other feral inhabitants), dancing and singing to the old tunes, lamenting over their halcyon days, of which we can step by step get an overall picture by garnering from their sporadic conversations and soliloquies whereas their scuzzy living conditions continue to appall us as a side-note. Singing is Big Edie’s passion, edging 80, she still can belt out enchanting oldies albeit her bedridden inconvenience. Little Edie, at the age of 57, conversely is much more agile, who seemly conjures up an effervescent persona on camera (that’s cinema, whenever you are camera-ready, it defects from reality), dazzles us with her parade of headscarfs and other get-ups, emits a convivial energy field around her notwithstanding the pestering grouse about a marriage she could never have, which adds up sympathy to the fact that she has never managed to live a life she pines for, a spinster who ostensibly sacrifices her personal life to be the caretaker of her aging mother, although the film never plies us with more data of their past apart from what they babble away incessantly on a daily base.
This creates a tinge gnawing feel, there must be grounds behind the duo’s decision to carry on their decaying pattern of living, but why? Financial hurdles, mental nonchalance or it is just an inexorable process of accepting the status quo and laissez-faire (they are blessed to have fortune which is able to provide for a care-free living inside a mansion)? And what is so formidably threatening outside Grey Gardens that obstructs them from going out and severs almost all the contact from the rest of the world? That is the core question, alas, we never find a satisfactory answer from this intimate portraiture. Big Edie is obviously hobbled by her physical state, but what about Little Edie? She would sell the property after her mother’s demise (in 1977) and embark on a new life (she died in 2002 at the age of 84), so what is her excuse of this self-imposed shut-in with her mother? Is their secluded status is mythified by design to gain a news-worthy appeal? One cannot help but speculate in the absence of further material of their story.
Of course, the film is a hallmark of documentary filmmaking which is meritoriously devoid of any suspicion of editorializing or exterior POVS, no spoon-feeding or emotion-manipulation, viewers can completely construct their own perspectives through those fragments of real life presented and conflated by the filmmakers, it is the closest “unadulterated truth” we can obtain from the medium of cinema. More heartwarming is that while sustain a dispassionate viewpoint, Maysles brothers show judicious protection over their subjects, however kooky they are, and unhealthy their relationship is, the daughter-and-mother pair deserve our respect, because they are courageous enough to open up, and reveal to us what humans are made up.