Fleas on the Wall…
Below is an extract from my thesis on the documentary form, focusing on the film “Grey Gardens”.
The production of this film began life as a “cinematic family album” (Vogels, 2007, p7) that had been commissioned by Lee Radziwell, the sister-in-law of John F. Kennedy. The film was to be an insight into the lives of the Bouvier/Beale family, as depicted by the rising documentarian brothers David and Albert Maysles. Through the course of their initial investigation into the family, the Maysles were introduced to Radziwell’s aunt ‘Big’ Edith Beale, and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie. The pair were living in their East Hampton home, Grey Gardens, which through the years had disintegrated into an ivy-covered, decaying shell of its former self; sharing it with an undisclosed amount of pet raccoons, cats and fleas. The brothers became fascinated with these two women, and after Radziwell abandoned the project (once she realized the world would see the state her relatives lived in) the Maysles commissioned their own film.
The end result of this accidental production is an emotional, intimate and addictive view into the tragically pathetic lives of two misunderstood women. The utterly bizarre philosophy and outlook on life of this mother/daughter team is the main appeal and purpose of this film. Their one-line witticisms and constructive views on life and the world they lived in are odd little moments of pure brilliance captured on film; and the audience are not only lucky enough to be shown these, but are also given a glimpse of the Maysles as they knowingly capture these eccentric women in their own habitat. The cinéma vérité style that the Maysles had adopted was a method that, although known about, had seldom been exposed to the mass audience. It is a method of documentary film production, which not only allows the subject to become more involved in the production process, but also allowed the filmmakers more freedom thanks to the technological advancements in handheld cameras, and according to some filmmakers, “the equipment was to hand which would allow for reality to be documented in an unmediated fashion” (Winston, 1995, p148). Examples of this are shown throughout “Grey Gardens”; at the beginning of the film, as a still image of the brothers is seen on camera, the voice of Little Edie announces “It’s the Maysles”, confirming them as, not only the filmmakers but also, characters in their own film. Throughout the documentary the brothers are heard talking behind the camera, are referred to by name by the two Beale women, and in several cases the brothers can be seen onscreen, holding the camera and microphone. This ‘interactive’ viewpoint is a technique that was prevalent in documentary filmmaking, however in terms of interaction with the subjects of the film, “Grey Gardens” goes far beyond the definition of observational representation. The interactivity between the brothers and the two women lasts throughout the entire film and is quite personal, even to the extent that it seems Little Edie is falling in love with David Maysles.
It seems unimaginable that a documentary film which basically follows the day-to-day struggle of two women would generate any interest at all, but the film has garnered a huge cult following, that has lasted four decades, which includes online fan sites, student fashion shows dedicated to the women’s attire and even figurines of the mother and daughter. However many things need to be taken into consideration about “Grey Gardens”. At the time the film was made and released, the American press had already told the story of the mother and daughter’s filthy living conditions, and their plight was highly publicized due to the fact they were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy; the former President’s wife. This fact has also been a source of criticism for the Maysles, as it seemed as if they too were benefiting from the publicity behind the women. Seldom, however, is reference made in the film to the fact these are the relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy.
In terms of the film’s ability to capture the audience, the one thing that differentiates this documentary from the contemporary definition of the genre is the fact the Maysles have tried to weave a narrative into the film. The story of Little Edie’s bitterness at being forced to stay home by her mother, and thus meaning she never married any of her many beaus, is a recurring theme throughout the film. The many close-up shots, and intrusive camera angles employed by Al Maysles give the audience a very personal and brutal first hand account of these family stories. We feel, not privileged but, slightly uneasy at this insight, and yet somehow we continue watching. Recurring themes of loneliness and a fear of the unknown run throughout “Grey Gardens”, as the film “…achieves what cinéma vérité aims for but seldom conveys: a sense that the material is telling itself.” (Michener, 1975, cited in Vogels, 2007, p8). Agreeing completely with Michener’s opinion, this documentary plays out as if you are just spending a day with the Beales and letting them take you on a tour of their lives and their home – for many this style has become the definition of documentary.
In one part of the film we are led up the stairs to the attic by ‘Little’ Edie, who then proceeds to open a carton of cat food, and pour it on the floor. She then produces a loaf of bread, which she throws on top of the pile and leaves as a sacrifice to the racoons that have taken control of the house. This image that the audience are presented with represents the entire feel of the film and the purpose of its representation. As an audience we are stunned by the way these women are living, and yet somehow our cultural background has programmed us to believe this is ‘just a film’, and we are therefore distanced from the peculiar and unbelievable way these women lived their lives. But the way the Maysles have produced this film, the way they leave the women to spin their own stories, the way they interact with the women, gives the audience another level of understanding, where they know this is reality and this is life as seen by two extraordinary women.
Winston (1995, p231) suggests the appeal of films like “Grey Gardens” lies in exactly the one thing an audience would not wish to be associated with: “What is ‘sexy’ in these movies, what gets them funded and shown, is exactly their voyeuristic freak-show quality.” This notion of spying on the unseen, getting a glimpse of an unknown world, is a typical quality of any observational and several interactive modes of documentary. Although many would wish to deny their voyeuristic tendencies, the popularity of this captivating film proves that everyone enjoys snooping on other people’s lives – and if their lives are as bizarre and eccentric as the Beales, then that is even better. It’s just a pity the brothers weren’t around to document the lives of the reclusive Collyer Brothers. The Maysles were praised by the two women, who had strong ideas about documentary filmmaking, and Edie Beale commented to the brothers: “You boys are probably closer to it [the truth]… and you want to hear what’s in a person’s mind… you are trying to get at truth.” (Beale, cited in Maysles and Maysles, 2009, p135). Her words could not have been truer, and Beattie (2004, p213) claims that it is this theory of the “truth” that many documentarians wish to uncover and portray in their films.
Above: Little Edie and the Maysles at the “Grey Gardens” premiere.
However, after the release of the film Albert and David Maysles were criticized for seemingly taking advantage of the women, and exploiting their insane tendencies. Their style of using a narrative to manipulate the footage was deemed “unethical” and “a cruel invasion of the Beales’ lives” (Vogels, 2007, p8). However, Renov makes a very interesting claim; “Al Maysles… had established himself as the ‘purest’ of the ‘pure’, even refusing to edit his material” (1993, p48). If true, then this would show that in terms of realism and the desire to not depict the film’s footage through ones own ideology, the Maysles would use other editors to create the final piece of work.
Based on this analysis, “Grey Gardens” stands out as a seminal piece of documentary work. The observational method, used to show audiences the lives of the subjects, creates a perfect example of the conventional classification of a documentary film; that is, to show audiences examples of the reality of the social and cultural world in which they live in, yet never see in their everyday life. © Philip Petrie, 2013.