In Grey Gardens, the formerly wealthy Beales reflect on their former splendor.

February 16, 2016

Grey Gardens: Honest, Minimalist Cinema

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It is perhaps the underlying ambition of any artist to depict a part of the human condition through his or her work. In doing so, the artist may choose to include complex, reflective, embellishing sentiments, thereby offering a number of personal interpretations of the subject under scrutiny. This is reminiscent of most 19th century Romantic composers, authors and painters who left much of themselves in their elaborate works. However, there also exist individuals who possess a much simpler approach to their creativity, preferring to portray a given theme with bleak and sometimes caustic honesty. It is this latter method that Albert and David Maysles took in creating their 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.

The film documents the lives of two women: Edith Beale, known as Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie. They are also the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, respectively. Born into the affluent Bouvier family, both women enjoyed comfortable upbringings in the early and mid 20th century. Big Edie married the wealthy Phelan Beale in 1917, and bore Little Eddie in the same year. About six years later, the Beales purchased the lavish Grey Gardens estate in East Hampton, New York. When the couple separated in 1931, Big Edie maintained ownership of Grey Gardens, which she made her home. She then pursued an amateur career in singing, living in Grey Gardens with male partners who supported her aspirations. Meanwhile, Little Edie, an upcoming debutante, never married — as was expected of young, affluent women — and tried instead to establish herself as an author and singer in New York City. In 1952, Little Edie moved back into Grey Gardens to support her aging mother. Grey Gardens finds the two women in the early 1970s, reclusive and still living in the estate, which has become dilapidated as their wealth diminished over the decades.

As mentioned, Albert and David Maysles use the simplest of methods in creating the film. Documentaries typically employ uncomplicated filmmaking techniques, as they exist in order to break away from dramatic reenactments of the subject matter. However, the Maysles brothers extend such minimalism to its boundaries. Grey Gardens possesses no soundtrack, staged interviews or narration by a third party. Background of the two women’s lives and present situations is only given in the beginning, when the camera highlights snippets of articles from the past about Big and Little Edie and the Grey Gardens estate. The Maysles let the two women interact and speak freely rather than prompting them towards a specific subject.

This technique is known as direct cinema, and it ultimately allows the filmmaker to document reality to a great degree of honesty. Grey Gardens serves as an ideal example of such filmmaking. The Maysles’ use of direct cinema highlights the staggering extent of control a director has in creating a documentary and the potential for bias that such autonomy creates. A director need only play a certain song, ask a specific question or describe an event in formatted detail to instill bias in the film. Of course, it is impossible to be completely unbiased; even Albert and David Maysles could not avoid the most basic interference of editing and stringing together scenes. Additionally, this bias is not always necessarily wrong, as some subjective hints by the director are often crucial in establishing the film’s purpose or central message.

However, in the case of Grey Gardens, no such linearity is needed; there are no separate events per se, and so the Beale’s lives can be depicted in truthful detail and intimacy. What exactly does this honesty seek to enlighten? In one interpretation, Grey Gardens provides commentary on the fickle nature of affluent living and values. Simply because the two women chose not to marry into opulence, they were left relatively small trusts and confined to live in their present state. However, the most provocative revelation exists beneath the poverty and squalor of the Grey Gardens estate. One finds that a strong bond exists between Big Edie and Little Edie, despite their living conditions. The two are often found bickering over the past, arguing for decisions that were never made or plans that never came to fruition. Yet neither mother nor daughter are compelled to leave as they find a subtle happiness in each other’s company. The dilapidated Grey Gardens estate and the powerful bond that exists within its walls is symbolic of the peace that exists between expectation and reality. The Beales did not find the success they were seeking when they broke from affluent tradition, and they could not have expected to one day live in their current state. But both have managed to find happiness in their lives. At one point, Little Edie quotes the well known Robert Frost verse, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

In Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maysles exhibit the artistic limits of documentary filmmaking in their use of the minimalistic direct cinema technique. All in all, the film is a brilliant exploration of human resiliency and happiness.

Nick Swan is a freshman in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected].