Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
Edith 'Big Edie' Bouvier Beale, Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beale
Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
Meet Big and Little Edie Beale: mother and daughter, high-society dropouts, and reclusive cousins of Jackie Onassis. The two manage to thrive together amid the decay and disorder of their East Hampton, New York, mansion, making for an eerily ramshackle echo of the American Camelot. An impossibly intimate portrait, this 1976 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, codirected by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, quickly became a cult classic and established Little Edie as a fashion icon and philosopher queen. The Blu-ray edition features the 2006 follow-up to the film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, constructed from hours of extra footage in the filmmakers’ vaults.
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English PCM Monaural
Runtime: 95 min.
Release Date: 12/10/2013
• Audio Commentary with Directors Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer and Associate Producer Susan Froemke
• The Beales of Grey Gardens Documentary
• “Little Edie” Audio Interview Excerpts
• Interviews with Designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett
• Photograph Scrapbook
• Trailer and TV Spot
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Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1975)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 3, 2013)
Best-known for their documentaries about rock stars like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles turned toward a different subject in 1975. Along with co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, they created Grey Gardens, a look at two faded socialites.
We go to East Hampton, New York, to meet elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middled-aged daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ aunt and cousin, respectively, they live in a decrepit, filthy old house dubbed “Grey Gardens”. The documentary examines their lives and how the once wealthy and popular women wound up recluses.
During this disc’s audio commentary, co-director Albert Maysles refers to the film as something of a cinematic Rorschach. If you’re content and happy, you’ll appreciate the Beale women as free-spirited non-conformists, whereas if you feel displeased with yourself and your life, you’ll view them as bitter, mentally ill old hags.
I disagree with Maysles, as I find the Beale ladies’ emotional problems to be undeniable no matter what the viewer’s frame of mind may be. Maysles also guards against criticisms that he and his cohorts exploited vulnerable women, which makes me take his comments as somewhat self-serving. Sure, there’s some room for interpretation when one looks at the Beales, but I find it hard to see them the way Maysles apparently does.
If we take him at his word, Maysles looks at the Beales as rebels who live life on their own terms, independent thinkers who don’t care about the judgments of others. To some degree, this appears to be true, but that viewpoint completely ignores the obvious mental pathology at work.
At the very least, their abode pushes them into the “unstable” realm. Largely reclusive, the Beales live in a decrepit house that’s literally falling apart around them. Filthy and infested with vermin, this isn’t the home of “free-thinkers”; it’s the residence of women too mentally unstable to understand how awful their surroundings have become.
In addition, the Edies engage in a relationship that defines “co-dependent”. One gets the impression that they spend their days in endless repetition of arguments. It may’ve been the early 1970s on the calendar, but in their minds, the Beale women were stuck in earlier decades, periods during which events shaped their lives and came to a head.
This means Gardens tends to revolve around the same discussions of the same topics, and as I mentioned, one infers that the Edies go through identical debates virtually every day of their shared lives. Big Edie is a worn-down old lady who clings to lost hopes of a musical career and relies on her daughter for every need, both physical and emotional. She appears perfectly content to spend all her days in one filthy bed, with an undefined number of house cats and various other animals around her – and defecating on her.
On the surface, this should make Little Edie the more normal of the two, especially since she rails against her predicament. Little Edie constantly complains about her life and discusses alternatives, most of which seem to revolve around a career as a dancer in New York City.
What makes Little Edie peculiar – and delusional at best – is her age. In her mid-fifties at the time, Little Edie clearly views herself as the young debutante she once was. She acts as though she could head to NYC any time she wanted and become the veritable talk of the town. In her mind, the world remains an open book, and every man who sees her wants to marry her. In her mind, even the reasonably handsome much younger handyman who works around the estate becomes another suitor smitten by Little Edie.
Of course, none of this is true, and it’s abundantly clear that Little Edie needs her mother just as much as Big Edie requires her daughter. Little Edie blames Mrs. Beale for everything that went wrong in her life, but it seems obvious that the younger woman sabotaged herself along the way. The reasons for this never become apparent, but although Little Edie seems to feel her mother trapped her, we can tell that she imprisoned herself as well.
All of this does make for interesting viewing, albeit in a “guilty pleasure” way. Some have accused the film of being exploitative, another claim that Albert Maysles and Little Edie dispute in the disc’s extras. They say that the movie can’t exploit the Beales because they agreed to appear in it!
That’s just absurd, as the mental issues displayed by the Edies shows they lack appropriate judgment. Just because they went along with the movie doesn’t excuse the filmmakers of any potential exploitation; that’s like saying because a drunk girl agreed to go to bed with you, then you’re absolved of any blame.
Not that I think the situation is that cut and dried, but the feeling that we’re delighting in the antics of people who’re not “all there” mentally can make Gardens uncomfortable at times, and their psychological issues don’t end with co-dependence. In addition, Little Edie shows significant signs of paranoia, as she occasionally refers to people who allegedly steal from her or are “out to get her”. Some of this shows up in the extras as well, and once again, Maysles goes out of his way to defend her. While he realizes no one’s taking from Little Edie, he claims that it’s more fun to imagine a secret life than to just admit you can’t find something you want.
Seriously? I hate to recognize the faltering memory that comes with age as much as anyone, but I’d prefer to indicate that I can’t find a book I want rather than to believe that strangers crept into my house and took it! Little Edie’s paranoia – which manifests in her attitude toward allegedly jealous, covetous neighbors as well – doesn’t show a healthy fantasy life; it depicts a woman out of touch with reality.
Which is ultimately what Grey Gardens depicts: two sad, aging women who relive the same tired, bitter arguments day after day and show little connection with the world around them. If some want to champion them as free-thinking non-conformists, go for it, but I can’t agree with that. Grey Gardens never seems fun or invigorating; instead, it’s a depressing tale of how even the most fortunate of people can end up in misery.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C/ Audio C/ Bonus B+
Grey Gardens appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. For a nearly 40-year-old documentary, the image looked fine.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it looked great, but it seemed acceptable given the restrictions of its origins. Sharpness was usually good. Occasional softness occurred, but those instances remained minor; while the movie didn’t deliver strong clarity, it fell well within the boundaries of what we’d expect.
I saw no shimmering or jaggies, and edge haloes remained absent. With a healthy layer of natural grain, I didn’t suspect any digital noise reduction, and print flaws were minor. Gate hairs occasionally cropped up on the edges, but otherwise the image lacked defects.
Colors were muted but decent. The film opted for natural hues, and these seemed acceptable; exteriors demonstrated the most pop, though even those stayed average. Blacks came across as dark enough, while shadows were fine; they could seem a little thick at times but not to a problematic degree. This was never an especially attractive presentation, but it looked about as good as I could expect.
Similar thoughts greeted the LPCM monaural soundtrack of Grey Gardens. Except for the occasional scratchy old record, the audio lacked any music, and effects remained resolutely in the background; other than walking feet and closing doors, we didn’t get many elements in that domain.
This left speech as the most dominant part of the track. Dialogue sounded fine, as the verbal comments from the participants appeared reasonably natural. I noticed no overt flaws; the “on the fly” recording occasional made speech a little tough to discern, but not frequently. Overall, this was a perfectly competent track.
When we shift to the set’s extras, we open with an audio commentary from directors Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer and associate producer Susan Froemke. Recorded in 2001, they discuss additional information/thoughts about the Beales, technical aspects of the shoot, editing and structuring the film, and reflections of the final product.
As I mention in the body of this review, I think the commentary can be self-serving at times, as the participants try hard to defend themselves against accusations of exploitation. Those elements aside, we get a nice look at the project. The speakers tell us a fair amount of background and throw in their two cents about the Edies. This ends up as a mostly satisfying chat.
From 2006, The Beales of Grey Gardens offers a follow-up documentary. Made with leftover footage from the original 1970s shoot, the show runs one hour, 31 minutes, and 18 seconds as it allows us to see more of the Beale women. Mainly this means a lot more of Little Edie, as her mother plays a much smaller role in Beales. We also get additional notes from/about secondary personalities like Jerry and Lois.
As a collection of “deleted scenes”, Beales has merit, but it doesn’t stand on its own especially well. It feels like a package created to satisfy fans of the original, not something with independent purpose. Some of this can be interesting, and I’m sure those who love the original film will like it, but I have to admit Beales leaves me a little bored.
Note that Beales opens with an eight-minute, 31-second intro from Albert Maysles. He tells us what prompted the creation of the follow-up and reflects on his experiences. Maysles offers a nice lead-in to the newer program.
We get additional info from one of the film’s stars via Little Edie Audio Interview Excerpts. Recorded for the April 1976 issue of Interview magazine, Albert Maysles also appears in a background capacity. Little Edie discusses aspects of her life – past and then-current – as well as her reflections on the film.
Don’t expect much news from the interview. Mostly Edie rehashes the same content we find in the movie, without much in the way of fresh insight. If you can’t get enough of Edie’s flamboyant personality, you should enjoy the piece, but it does little for me.
Under Interviews, we get two clips shot in 2001 by Albert Maysles. We hear from fashion designers Todd Oldham (5:25) and John Bartlett (5:23). In their chats, the designers cover their impressions of the film as well as how it affected their design work. They offer a few decent observations but I can’t say they tell us much of interest.
In addition to a trailer and a TV spot, we find a Photograph Scrapbook. It breaks into three areas: “Family Album” (18 stills), “Behind the Scenes” (91) and “Cats” (18). The last is literal, as it just shows shots of the felines seen in the movie; it’s pretty pointless. “Behind” has some decent images, but “Album” – with a mix of archival elements – becomes easily the strongest part of the “Scrapbook”.
The set finishes with an eight-page booklet. This contains an essay from New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als and some technical notes. It’s worth a look, but this ends up as one of the weaker Criterion booklets.
Interesting but depressing, Grey Gardens offers a portrait of two women who once had wealth and good fortune but ended up in squalor. Some appear to take positives from it, but I see little more than mental illness on display. The Blu-ray comes with acceptable picture and audio as well as a nice collection of bonus features. Grey Gardens gives us a compelling piece, though not necessarily one I’d want to see again.
Viewer Film Ratings: -- Stars
| Number of Votes: 0