Movie: Grey Gardens (1975)
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Why Did I watch this?
I don't know. Grey Gardens has been in my head for a while. I watched the Documentary NOW! bit about it, "Sandy Passage" (S1;E1) and then bought a gray car that I named Edith. But that was years ago now. It was available on HBOMax and I put it on my list immediately. It had been burning a hole forever, I don't know, I guess you've really got to be in a mood to chill out to Grey Gardens on a Friday night. But that's what this blog series is for! Forcing me to watch things I've always wanted to!
What Did I know ahead of time?
Really just totally from Sandy Passage. I knew there was an old one and a young one and they lived as hermits in a big dilapidated house. It was a notable documentary that a lot of people seemed to know about. I really realized while watching this how much Documentary NOW! dug into exact scenes from this.
How Was It?
I don't know. Sorry, these are tough questions. I kept trying to figure out why this was such a groundbreaking documentary. The subjects are certainly two odd old ladies, but I came here to gaze at squalor and depravity, not watch little dances with American flags. But that's all part of it. This documentary really let the ladies tell their own story, and while I'm sure there were some editing choices, there isn't an agenda or even any semblance of a story.
The film lays out its premise straight away through a few headlines, and then even showing entire articles up on the screen. Jackie Kennedy's aunt has been living in a house in East Hampton for the past 50 years and her daughter, also inexplicably named Edith Beale, has joined her for the last 25. They were "raided" by police in the years preceding the documentary for the high amount of garbage and raccoons on the premises.
So we enter in this state of paranoia, love, but also constant insane bickering. And that's pretty much the movie. There are some interesting themes to explore here. They spend most of the film waxing poetic about the days of yore. They had married into money, but Big Edith's husband abandoned them. They have strong New York connections to one of the century's most powerful families. But now they live in obscurity and poverty.
There is a lot to that. They are basically living the inverse of the American dream, where they started from everything and now have nothing. Their attitudes don't seem to have changed, which does seem on par with America. It's a meditation on complacency - little by little their lives have been chipped away. It's the same thing that happens when you don't deal with a mess so long you begin to think it's normal and don't do anything about it.
Little Edie claims that she could have married J. Paul Getty or any other of a series of millionaire suitors, but she blames a need to take care of her mother for the reason why she is where she is instead of out there with a man. We get the full gamete of emotional compensation here. Does she actually like living here and pretends to complain? Does she want to get out but her mother is really suppressing her? She seems to be able to leave whenever she wants and her mother seems by far the more mild mannered of the two, but their relationship is complex and deep, despite it emerging as nothing but surface-level bickering.
We don't get to see all that much of the garbage squalor. It's disappointing. It is a cruddy looking mansion and there are cats everywhere. Also, do they sleep in the same room together in those two beds? I was wondering who feeds the kitties every day. It's probably wise they didn't languish on their lives and instead focused on the characters as they are right now. I wonder if that technique emerged as they were filming and they realized it was the only reasonable way to depict these people without being exploitative and sensationalist. The filmmakers were still criticized for doing just that, but they seem to have done the best they could with letting them tell their own story.
In the end we don't get much insight into exactly what is going on here or why these people are the way they are. We just see them as they are and we can read into it what we need to. I suppose that is an interesting technique and it's notable for that along with the genuinely compelling characters. Still, it gets old after a big and the fact that the film doesn't really go anywhere or have anything profound to say makes it drag quite a bit.