Sunday, July 1, 2007

Staunch Women and Their Guilty Pleasures; "Grey Gardens" at IFC

I've never really grasped the concept of the guilty pleasure. I don't watch "American Idol". I believe in the literary merit of the first "Bridget Jones," book, though the second made me want to hurt myself., and I think everyone who appeared in Sascha Baron Cohen's brilliant " Borat" movie was only being him or herself, and all those people who are so busy suing him just now, would be well advised to reconsider their lawsuits, before that truth becomes glaringly apparent to large numbers of people in open court. Generally speaking, the things I like, I also think are good, in one way or another.

So, when I tell you that, from the very first time I saw the documentary, "Grey Gardens," it gave me a new understanding of what a guilty pleasure could be, you'll realize I'm not talking about the cinematography. I love that movie. I'm not sure how many times I've seen it, but I'm pretty sure I could have it on an endless loop, and never get tired of it. But I've felt guilty about watching it every single time. Because, you see, in case you don't already know this, it's a documentary about two crazy old ladies, a mother and daughter, with countless cats, at least one raccoon, and a house that's falling down around them, exploiting their insanity for our voyeuristic viewing pleasure . Or so the story goes. Having seen it on the big screen for the first time recently, though, I should tell you I've begun to have some doubts.

"Grey Gardens" is one of those movies that's just about impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't seen it, but I'll do my best to give you the basic facts. Albert and David Maysles made it over about five weeks in the summer of 1973, filming Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Little Edie, at their decrepit mansion in East Hampton. The two had lived there alone together, with their menagerie, ever since Edie had moved out of the Barbizon Hotel in New York in 1952, when she was 35. The two of them sing and dance, argue, mostly about why Edie came home, and why she's still there, and lounge around in the sun. Edie vamps it up fetchingly in what she calls her "revolutionary costumes," all of which cover her head, takes care of the animals, says the most astonishing things, swims, and pines for New York. Then they have a little party for Edith's eightieth birthday party. And they happen to be, respectively, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnasis.

So there's not all that much happening. I know. The thing about "Grey Gardens," is its subjects, mostly Edie, though her mother has her moments too. Most notably when Edie tells her, by way of reproof as she's been reminiscing over her youth, and failed marriage to Edie's father, "You can't have your cake and eat it too," and Mama answers, "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it, and had everything I wanted." It's a little disconcerting, to hear an eighty year old woman, whose house is in pieces around her, so pleased with herself. But she's got nothing on Little Edie.

Edie on camera is more than disconcerting. She's disturbing to watch, in her turbans and fishnets, declaring that "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? It's awfully difficult." As though it was the most reasonable of all possible things a person could ever say. It's not so much the things she says, or wears, or even does, though, that make Little Edie so difficult to watch, and impossible to turn away from, all at once. It's more to do with the way she directs her eyes right at the camera, directs the action, seems somehow to be controlling events in a way she's not really supposed to be doing, as the subject of a documentary. She's not supposed to be the one with all that power. Edie's not settling into the space she's supposed to occupy onscreen. She's everywhere at once. It gets awfully difficult, trying to keep track of who's running the show at Grey Gardens. Things become much easier if we stop trying, and just agree that Edie's not so much disturbing as disturbed. We have to deal with the guilt, it's true, of taking pleasure in watching a crazy lady disporting herself for our enjoyment, but we are relieved of the necessity of questioning our most basic assumptions about who's got the power, in this whole filmmaking setup. And frankly, dealing with the guilt requires much less effort on our part. This arrangement almost works, so long as we keep Edie, and her movie, within the confines of a tiny TV. screen.

A few weeks ago, though, I went to a midnight showing of "Grey Gardens," at the IFC center. Up there on the big screen, Edie would not be kept to the terms of a deal she'd never entered into in the first place. Watching her, larger than life, rather than miniaturized this time, I realized just what a slap in the face the film's existence was to her famous cousin, who hadn't wanted it made at all. Who had, in fact, been very nearly willing to let Edie and her mother be evicted from their home by the village of East Hampton a few years earlier, when they'd run out of money to keep the place up, and had managed to violate just about every sanitation ordinance the village had on its books, from a lack of running water to an abundance of dead cats. Only the media coverage, full of photographs of Edie in a house piled high with garbage, had finally forced Jacqueline to come to their rescue in the end. She must have been delighted to see Edie in her costumes, feeding raccoons in the attic!

A line I'd never noticed more than any other struck me too, this time around. In telling the film crew about an argument with her mother, Edie says, "You see, in dealing with me the relatives didn't know they were dealing with a staunch woman. S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse. I'm telling you. They don't weaken. No matter what."

On the big screen, it becomes apparent that Edie does more than merely command all of the attention available at any given moment when she's onscreen. She raises questions. Her costumes require the film crew to ask questions that allow her to deliver the monologue du jour, the photographs she pulls out require questions about her brothers, and why they are nowhere to be found, or about her history, or her mother's. Her very presence raises in the house raises questions The question of why she's there, when she'd endlessly saying she'd rather be in New York. The question of why she left New York in the first place, when she doesn't seem to have wanted to. Neither of these questions ever receives anything like a satisfactory answer, in the film or elsewhere. Talking to Gail Sheehy, in 1971, for instance, Edie says that she had to come home because "Mother got the cats." That's hardly an answer, now is it? It is a funny dodge though, and unanswerable too, I'll give her that.

In any tedious sales training, one of the first things you learn is that the person asking the questions is always the one who holds the power. In the case of "Grey Gardens," Edie didn't have to say a word to take control. No one else ever stood a chance.

After her mother's death in 1977 Edie had a cabaret act for a little while, at a place on West 13th st. Her singing, apparently, was not so great, no big surprise there, to anyone who's seen the film. But she ended each performance with question and answer sessions which, judging from the snippets to be found, down towards the ends of all the bad reviews, were kind of brilliant. One night, for instance, when asked her opinion of premarital sex, Edie replied, "It's economical." I'm choosing to see a secret life inside that answer. One in which Edie got to have, love masticate, chew and even eat a little cake of her very own. You, of course, should do with it what you will.

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