I've not had much chance to see any exhibitions for a while: a last-ditch winter illness and lots of work to do seem to have got in the way. Having said that, time at home recuperating has given me a chance to catch up on my viewing, including the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. It seems especially appropriate to write a little something about it here, given that this film seems, to me at least, more artist film/video than coventional cinema release.
The film centres around two eccentric protagonists who are, for the most part, the only characters who appear on screen. They are mother and daughter 'Big Edie' and 'Little Edie' Beale, who live an odd and isolated life in a decaying East Hamptons mansion, the eponymous Grey Gardens, so called because of the colour of the sea-mist and dunes that lie nearby. The pair are the aunt and cousins of Jackie Onassis, and once a part of New York's sophisticated Park Avenue set - in their heyday, both glamorous, bohemian and beautiful. Big Edie had once been a singer, and her daughter a model and aspiring actress, but in later days, they found themselves living in poverty and squalor, selling off their Tiffany jewelry to eke out their reclusive existence.
The duo had first come to public attention in the 1970s when the New York Times had run a piece about the dreadful conditions they lived in - the house overrun by feral cats and raccoons, and filled with sewage and rubbish. The authorities threatened to evict them and condemn the house, but Jackie and her sister Lee Radizwell came to the rescue, paying to make the house structurally sound and for over 100 bags of rubbish to be cleared away. But the media coverage of the story also caught the attention of documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, who went on to visit Grey Gardens and film a documentary about the ladies over a period of six weeks. During their time there, they reportedly had to wear flea collars on their ankles to keep from being bitten.
Intimate, meditative and strangely ghostly, the resulting film seems to be devoid of any conventional narrative. In a series of disjointed fragments that play out through the house and its tangled gardens, Little Edie tries on a succession of bizarre outfits, swathed in headscarves and costume jewelery, her mother sings the songs of her youth, and the two gently bicker, sitting outside in the sunshine or in the bedroom, lying side-by-side on twin beds. It's not clear whether or not these fragments occur in any kind of sequence: the film merely drifts onwards without resolution, in parallel to the lives of the two Edies themselves. Revealingly though, both seem oddly preoccupied by the idea of time, as well as the chronology of their own personal histories, poring over old photographs and demanding of each other to know what time it is at regular intervals.
There's something mesmerising, almost hypnotic, about this film, and perhaps that is why, in spite of the lonely, otherworldly lives they lead, this portrait of the two Edies has gone on to exert an influence on artists of all kinds, from writers to visual artists to performance artists to fashion designers. Its legacy continues: a made-for-TV movie based on the original documentary was released by HBO in 2009, featuring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the Beales; Mark Jacobs designed a 'Little Edie' bag a few seasons ago; Rebekah and Sara Maysles published a book of collage and ephemera from the film; and filmmaker Liliana Greenfield-Sanders even made a film in tribute, Ghosts of Grey Gardens, a documentary on the original documentary exploring the legacy of the Beales' influence on creatives of all kinds, re-mixing the original footage with performance art, interviews, monologue and dialogue. Remarkably there's even a successful Broadway musical based on Grey Gardens.
Maybe another reason for the enduring influence of this film is the sheer magnetism of its protagonists - both mother and daughter are natural performers, seeming to take an almost childlike delight in being the subjects of the documentary. On its original release, however, the Maylses were in fact criticised by many of their fellow filmmakers for 'exploiting' the pair, as well as being condemned for breaking the then rigidly-followed rules of so-called 'direct cinema' - the idea being that documentarists should distance themselves from the action and allow the truth to emerge through simple observation, rather than engaging in the lives and actions of their subjects. Indeed, unusually for a documentary, the filmmakers themselves occasionally do actually appear in the action, taking part in conversations or even glimpsed as an arm, a hand or a reflection in a mirror, but far from reducing the 'truth' of the work, for me at least, the result is a documentary that feels more human. Uncanny, haunting and often deeply poignant it may well be, but this is ultimately a kind-hearted portrait of two extraordinary women.
Clips of Grey Gardens can be seen on YouTube here.
[Stills from Grey Gardens (1975) directed by the Maysles Brothers, via Ghosts in the Snow]