The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975) is a film portrait of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It’s a film about eccentrics and eccentricity, about marginal people whose living conditions reflect the condition of their lives.
Film lends itself exceptionally well to the substitution of one thing for another when two things regularly appear together. Over the course of the Maysles brothers' film, the Grey Gardens estate comes to stand for the lives of the Beales in the same way the American flag has come to stand for America and the White House for the President. If there were nothing more to Grey Gardens (1975) than that – and there is – it would still be an important work of art, because it’s a wonderful example of film as sympathetic magic. It gives us the illusion of power over the world by reducing complicated people and situations to a manageable size.
The genre the Maysles brothers chose to work in had rules, and they were accused from time to time of breaking them, of manipulating events, of straying outside the boundaries of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, particularly in the case of Gimme Shelter (1970), a sensational film that features the murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont.
Direct cinema captures real events as they happen, without interfering with them in any way. There is no direction in direct cinema, no “do this” or “do that again.” No questions. No staged scenes. Nature documentaries are perhaps the purest example of the form. The film makers witness horrific events, but never interfere. Cinéma vérité, another style of modern documentary, has some latitude. It’s more about truth than about reality, and, as long as the film conveys the truth, it may wander away from real events.
In the case of films like Grey Gardens (2009), a historical drama that HBO has run off and on since its triumph at the Emmies, neither the rules of direct cinema nor cinéma vérité apply. The intention of the producers is simply entertainment, and they're free to pick over the bones of the Maysles' kill any way they can. HBO doesn't broadcast Grey Gardens as part of it's regular schedule anymore, but, in a move that harkens back to the days when movies were all glitz and glitter to brighten the lives of the little people, they put it up on HBO On Demand over the Christmas holidays. "They were steeped in affluence and privilege," the HBO promo proclaims. "Yet their lives in East Hampton became a riches-to-rags story that made national headlines." There is a metaphor lurking around there somewhere.
A cottage industry has sprung up around Grey Gardens and the Beales since the Maysles first documented the squalor and decay of the Beales’ lives. Since Grey Gardens (1975) the documentary, we’ve had Grey Gardens the musical, Grey Gardens the book, Grey Gardens the web site and, finally, HBO's version of the Beales' story. But I doubt HBO will have the last word.
Over the years, the Beales have attracted a cult following: people who know what it’s like to live on the fringe. But the audience for works based on the lives of the Edies is more general than a cult. It includes any of us who have ever slowed down to look at the scene of an accident.
The story of the Edies coincides with the long, downhill slide of American society, the decay of the American dream, and the slow stratification of America into two cultures, one affluent and above ground, the other underground, it’s people trapped in poverty. If it could happen to the Edies, it could happen to anyone.
American capitalism has always had two spurs to keep us moving up the steep hill of success. One boot prods us with the promise of fortune and fame, the other with the specter of disaster, with the threat of losing all we have suddenly or, like the Beales, gradually, as we get older. The Beales’ story is frightening and fascinating. It’s hard to look at it, but it’s harder to look away.
The Maysles brothers had an eye for the wounded straggler, for the animal ready to die. Perhaps it’s because their subjects knew they were damaged that the Maysles brothers were able to stay above the people and events they filmed, to appear to be superior to their subjects, to have the upper hand. Their contemporary, D. A. Pennebaker, seemed more respectful, more deferential to his subjects – even, as in the case of the War Room (1993) when Pennebaker’s camera grovels at the feet of James Carville and Mary Matalin, obsequious.
Pennebaker had a knack for getting in on the beginning of things: Timothy Leary and the counterculture; Bob Dylan; Joplin and Hendricks at the Monterrey Pop Festival; and, finally, the Clintons. The Maysles brothers, Al and David, had a knack for being there at the end of things, the final acts, the death throes of the traveling salesman and the Counterculture, the unraveling of Camelot.
By the time he filmed Grey Gardens (1975), Al Maysles was one of the best cinematographers in the world, and the Maysles brothers had mastered the art of manipulating subjects and situations. They had developed a gift for narrative unmatched in documentary film. No one tells a story the way the Maysles brothers do.
“Once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it,” Paul Brennan, the "Badger," tells the camera in Salesman (1968). Brennan suffers from too much awareness. He knows he’s a dead-ender in a dying profession. Negativity is the unpardonable sin of Brennan’s world, and Al Maysles patiently and carefully documents Brennan’s descent into negativity during Brennan’s last days as a bible salesman.
“We can get it together,” Mick Jagger tells the crowd at Altamont, just before a shot of what appears to be the Hell’s Angels killing a black fan who pulled a gun on them. Earlier in the concert, when Grace Slick, watching the Hell’s Angels beat her fans with pool cues, said: “People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line,” she was, at that spaced-out, sappy moment, more in touch with the direction of American society than the slightly confused Jagger who believed Altamont was going to set an example for America about how to behave at large gatherings.
The Maysles brothers persuaded Jagger and the Stones to let Al film them watching a rough cut of Gimme Shelter on a Steenbeck editing table, ostensibly to provide a gimmick to structure the film. The brothers’ real reason was to make the apparent knifing of a fan by the Angels the central point of the film. Without the knifing and the opportunity to make Jagger eat his words, the Maysles brothers would have had a mediocre, though beautifully photographed concert film, whose high points were scenes of Jagger expressing his androgynous sexuality and young Tina Turner fellating her microphone. The violence and the obvious naiveté of the Stones and Grace Slick gave the brothers a chance for something much bigger, a chance to take down the Stones, Slick and the Counterculture at the same time. Eerily, Jagger’s helicopter exit from the Altamont speedway foreshadowed America’s final exit from Saigon, and, by the end of Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s stare was as vacant as the barren landscape in the last shot of the film.
For big-game hunters like the Maysles brothers, who already had bagged the "Badger", the Stones, Grace Slick and the end of the Counterculture, two eccentric ladies in a run-down mansion were sitting ducks.