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GREY GARDENS/THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 94 Minutes/91 Minutes
Release Date: December 5, 2006

"The cat is going to the bathroom behind my portrait."
"Isn’t that awful?"
"I’m glad. I’m glad somebody is doing what they want to do."

Film ***

Grey Gardens is a simply constructed but challenging film. I had never seen it prior to this DVD viewing, and in watching it, I found I was both fascinated and repulsed by it in almost equal measures. Sometimes, I felt like an invited guest in that old mansion, and other times, I felt trapped there.

Grey Gardens is the name of the 28 room home of 79 year old Edith Bouvier Beale (a.k.a. "Big Edie") and her 56 year old daughter, Little Edie. As the name implies, they are in fact related to the late former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (her aunt and cousin, respectively).

One could argue that if these women were not related to Jackie O, no one would have made a film about them. But they’re a fascinating pair; funny and sad, each constantly asserting her independence from the other when it’s painfully clear that they can’t live apart.

Their house, we learn from early news clippings, had gotten so run down it was declared a health hazard, and the Beales were almost evicted from it. It must have been a glorious place in its day, but at the time of the film, it was filthy, and housing stray cats and wandering raccoons in addition to the women. A hole in one wall early on is pointed out as the place where the animals come and go; by the end of the movie, it has grown considerably. Animal waste is apparent in many places to the dismay of Little Edie; Big Edie says she likes it, considering her home "concentrated" ground.

They argue and quibble like any mother and daughter. Both seem lost in a time warp; Little Edie even confesses she has no clocks. When they reminisce, they slip back into their youths before our eyes. Big Edie really lights up the screen when she suddenly bursts forth with her rendition of "Tea for Two". Little Edie dances to a march while toying with a tiny American flag. "Oh, David," she says (to David Maysles), "where have you been all my life?"

As they demonstrated in their earlier triumph with the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers seem to have a knack for making their subjects feel at ease in front of their cameras. Better still, they are no so self-conscious as to avoid integrating with their subjects. Some of the best and most revealing moments occur when Little Edie talks directly to the filmmakers. Her observations about being a staunch woman ("S-T-A-U-N-C-H" she punctuates), or losing her favorite scarf amongst a "sea of green leaves" are priceless.

The women’s conversations with each other speak volumes…sometimes, a little too much. We get a sense of the full love/hate/happy/sad relationship between a mother and daughter, but frankly, sometimes it’s a little much. They speak over one another constantly until the words become an almost indecipherable cacophony, and even the subtitles on the DVD can’t always keep up with them. We never really learn the answers to the questions we want to know, like how did two members of the Bouvier family end up living in such isolation and squalor? Some facts are hinted act, such as that Big Edie’s ex-husband may have made off with their money, but nothing is made clear. All that’s left really is the juxtaposition of the Beales’ lives and fantasies against the harsh, ugly background of their living conditions. I hesitate to use the word surreal, but I’m hard pressed to come up with a more suitable adjective.

A scene near the end is quite heartbreaking, as Little Edie releases her sorrow and anger at her mother over her own lonely condition, blaming Big Edie for keeping her suitors away in her youth. How true this is we cannot say; like most truths, this one is subject to point of view. But they are codependents. However much Little Edie talks about leaving and "not spending another ten years" there, we get the feeling that ten years later, there she will continue to be.

Grey Gardens is deceptively unassuming and modest, but seems to touch on values and philosophies much deeper than its simplicity would lead you to believe at first. It’s a good film, but not completely enjoyable, yet more challenging than most movie offerings of recent memory. One can’t help but ponder the destinies of the Beale women…Big Edie is, of course, long gone now, but it’s hard not to picture Little Edie exactly as we leave her in the film: still dancing away to some remote music, still lost somewhere between the past and the present, and still smiling at us as if to ask, "where have YOU been all my life?"

Video ***

Though apparently shot on 16 mm film, the source material still makes for a quality DVD transfer under the guidance of Criterion. Colors are quite good throughout, especially the lush, green exteriors…when the colors appear drab, it’s because that’s what they are (it ain’t called Grey Gardens for nothing). Images are generally well rendered, but the film stock naturally lends itself to some grain in a few darker settings, with less detail. Still, as a film that’s been hard to come by over the years and often seen only on the shoddiest of prints, this new digital transfer is a crowd-pleasing revelation.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is fine, but unspectacular by nature. Dialogue renders well, but there’s hardly any music except for the women’s old records, so there’s nothing much on the audio that will challenge your home system.

Features ***1/2

Grey Gardens contains a good commentary track by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke, who all reflect not only on the process of making the film, but their two leading ladies as well. There are excerpts from a 1976 recorded interview with Little Edie by Kathryn G. Graham for Interview magazine, two new interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett on the influence this movie had on them, some behind the scene photos, a trailer and a TV spot, plus filmographies. Unbilled is a special feature at the end of the movie: if you wait past the credits, you’ll see color bars, then you’ll get to hear a telephone call by Little Edie to David Maysles.  It’s about five minutes, and plays against some accompanying photographs…I enjoyed it a great deal. Little Edie is as charming as ever 25 years later.

This double disc set also includes the 2006 film The Beales of Grey Gardens, featuring a video introduction from Albert Maysles.

Summary:

Interestingly enough, it may have been the bonus inclusion of the late Little Edie’s recent phone call to David Maysles that really validates this movie for me. Grey Gardens and The Beales of Grey Gardens as documentaries are truthful, insightful, and deeper than one might initially perceive, but feel disturbingly like a frozen moment in time with no beginning or end. Hearing Little Edie a quarter of a century later added a bit of necessary perspective and fluidity to the narrative for me, and left me with a more optimistic feeling that I originally had. All in all, this is another impressive and quality offering from Criterion…if you loved their release of Gimme Shelter, this one will also be well worth a look for you.

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