Documentaries can be odd beasts. At their most pure, they are exactly what the word implies, a document of life, no judgement or coloring, just capturing their subjects. Many, if not most, go well beyond that, structured and designed to further a cause or deliver a point. The other extreme occurs when the “goal” supersedes the concept of being a documentary altogether, thus venturing into the realm of propaganda. David and Albert Maysles’ Grey Gardens is a documentary of the purest form. Hit the jump for my review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Grey Gardens.
Greg Gardens delves into the complex mother-daughter relationship between Big Edith and Little Edie Beale, one-time members of high-society now living in squalor with their cats in their decrepit, disintegrating East Hampton, New York, mansion–the highest of the high dropped shockingly down. Their relationship is one of love-hate, with Little Edie harboring much resentment amongst her familial feelings for the dominance exerted by her mother. Both women dwell on past memories and what might have been, sometimes bordering on the delusional. Intriguing characters in their own right, the viewer’s fascination is clinched even more so by the almost hard-to-fathom fact that they are the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
As mentioned previously, Grey Gardens is very much a pure documentary. No judgement is passed on these two ladies, no supposed cause is being furthered. The story of the film flows entirely and organically from the actions and conversations of Big Edith and Little Edie as their conflicted emotions rise, fall and eventually come to a head–only to sooth again. So seldom does the real venture into the surreal as it does in this movie, infused as it is in dramatic oppositions: the former glory of the now rundown mansion in one of the nation’s swankiest neighborhoods, the social standing of their family and past versus their current circumstances, and, most importantly, their own love-hate relationship.
The camerawork is haunting and beautiful, somehow capturing the former greatness that cannot now be seen as well as turning the house itself into an important supporting character, while the editing foreshadows the stock-in-trade of so many modern and vastly inferior “reality” shows, cutting between the the conversations, often confrontational, of the two women and the near confessionals of Little Edie. But where reality shows are contrived and designed to scintillate, Grey Gardens is organic and empathetic. Whether one feels sorrow or relatedness to Big Edith and Little Edie, the key is that Grey Gardens does make you feel.
The 1.33 picture is absolutely stunning, sporting a beautifully restored 2k transfer from the original 16mm camera negatives. Colors, in particular, are of note for the vibrancy, yet considering that until the Criterion Collection came out one must assume most releases were lacking such vividness, much of the film’s visual potentness must have been long subdued. Interestingly enough, while dust and other damage has been removed, hairs in the camera gate have been left in this release, probably as a testament to the immediacy of the documentary format. Sounds–almost entirely dialogue save for a few records being played–has similarly been cleaned up, as pristine as such a documentary could be.
The showcase of the special features is The Beales of Grey Gardens, the 2006 follow-up movie culled from the vast footage still in the Maysles’ archive after completing the original film. It too has received a fresh digital transfer and is well worth the watch as a companion piece (sequel does not seem to be the right word) to Grey Gardens to further understand these fascinating women. Additionally, The Beales of Grey Gardens is accompanied by an introduction by Maysles.
The audio commentary for Grey Gardens is one of the most essential I have heard in a very long time, amongst other things explaining how the story was crafted from what the filmmakers shot. Other extras include an interview with Little Edie from 1976, interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett on the influence of the film on their work (nice, but unnecessary), and the usual go-tos of trailers, TV spots and photo galleries.
Ultimately, Grey Gardens is a film that bears rewatching, the type of movie in which each subsequent viewing reveals more about its protagonists. Documentary at its purest.