Documentary Diary: A critical analysis of the Maysles Brother’s ‘Grey Gardens’.

I’m going to explore the ways in which the Maysles Brothers used techniques synonymous with direct cinema. They produced a candid and controversial non-fiction feature film depicting the relationship between an eccentric mother and her daughter. The film’s aesthetic embraces its imperfections as a hallmark of realism. It follows direct cinema conventions with handheld camera movements and the use of only diegetic sound. The drama unfolds unscripted and without narration. The filmmakers’ faith in the spontaneous, asks nothing more from its subjects than their permission to be filmed.

Whilst working with the Drew Associates the Maysles Brothers saw fault in other modes of documentary, which strongly resembled propaganda and often mislead audiences. The Drew Associates set about revolutionising documentary film, aiming to produce more intimate and objective content. In the early 1960s when the brothers began working on their own productions, they continued to develop the principals of direct cinema.

In 1972, first lady Jacqueline Kennedys sister, Lee Radziwill (mother-in-law of Real Housewives of NY’s Carole Radziwell) approached the Maysles brothers to produce a film about her childhood. On the list of places she suggested to film was Grey Gardens, a 28-room East Hamptons mansion which was an overgrown flea ridden fortress. Although Radziwill eventually lost interest in the project the brothers found a fascination with the mansion’s residents, Edith ‘Big Edie’ Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’. The women’s fierce tenacity and complex relationship with one another captivated the filmmakers in the same way the film does with its audiences.

As the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O, the Beale’s isolated life and the increasingly decrepit state of Grey Gardens was a far cry from what they were brought up to be accustomed to. ‘Big Edie’ a former singer and ‘Little Edie’ who was a model and ‘it’ girl, were both New York socialites. Before Big Edie and her husband separated the women lived a life of luxury, attending premiers and donning the latest fashions. Little Edie’s love of clothes continued when their disposable income declined, she would creatively fashion her flamboyant outfits from towels, bed sheets and curtains. The documentary explores how two aristocrats both with beauty and talent ended up being the subject of criticism for living in such appalling conditions. The local board of health ordered the women to improve the state of the house or be evicted. Little Edie believed this was an invasion of their privacy, pushing the two women into an even more insular existence.

Despite their impoverished circumstances, the high society drop outs seem content in their decaying mansion relying only on each other, their cats and the raccoons in the attic for company. The only regular visitor was Jerry Torre, the women’s young handyman. After running away from home he was taken in by the women and became somewhat of a rival sibling for Little Edie. The presence of a man in the house served as an unpleasant reminder of the rich suitors scared away by Big Edie. Little Edie who frequently brought up the men’s marriage proposals displayed resentment for missed opportunities throughout the film.

The exposition of the film is done largely through the use of a montage of news clippings showing the coverage that ‘Grey Gardens’ was receiving and the attitude neighbours had to the women’s lifestyle. The use of montage is effective because as well as providing the mansion’s back story it places emphasis on the story being true. The Maysles brothers do little to hide their presence in the film. Whilst the headlines are being shown, their voices are heard accompanied by an image of the two men. J B. Vogels (2005) argues that this is an important part of the film as it cements the Maysles as both supporting characters within the film and its creators. This is also apparent as glimpses of the filmmakers can be seen in reflections in mirrors and when the Beales directly address or speak about the men. By showing images of the brothers with their equipment the film makes its audience acknowledge that although the film shows the real lives of its subjects, it’s presented as a manufactured product. The documentary’s self-reflexive nature makes it not only about the inhabitants of Grey Gardens but about a time when a film crew visited them. 

Direct Cinema was dependant on the new technologies coming out at the time. Sound recording equipment became smaller and more portable as did the cameras. ‘Grey Gardens’ is filmed in a fly on the wall style, conforming to the conventions of direct cinema. The handheld camera enabled Albert Maysles to move freely and capture the action quickly, although at times the shot would be shaky and lacking focus. ‘These ‘flaws’ in themselves seem to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250)  With the heavier pre-war equipment this style would not have been as achievable.

‘The beauty of a Maysles image most often arises through its startling immediacy, capturing and seizing the spontaneity of a moment….rather than freezing the image into one of overly aestheticized beauty.’ Joe McElhaney – Albert Maysles University of Illinois Press 2009.

McElhaney points out that the camera operator being there to capture the action unfolding on film is part of the attraction of this documentary. The fact the Maysles were there to record the moments at all is more important than the technical excellence of the images produced. It is the film’s visual imperfections that become a metaphor for the women’s lives which are at times off-kilter, messy and difficult to follow.

The filmmakers shot hours of footage without forming a final judgment of what the outcome of the film would be. The Maysles allowed a single camera to roll continuously whilst recording sound. This resulted in the film being largely made up of long takes, which are a common feature of direct cinema films. The creators aspire to be objective; the less they have to manipulate their footage the better. The Maysles allowed ‘Grey Gardens’ to serve as an exploration of the women’s feelings towards each other as well as their fears of men and the outside world. Edith and Edie spent a lot of time reminiscing about their past as they look through photo albums and express regret over missed opportunities. From the photographs the audience can see how the women, much like their mansion, were once beautiful but age and lack of care have caught up on them. The dissimilarity of the old photographs and the tightly framed images from the present highlight how their lives changed. Grey Gardens which in their youth was a sanctuary has become somewhat of an asylum for the women, trapping them in a lost time and in their view protecting them from the outside world.

The idea of the two women being imprisoned in Grey Gardens is repeated throughout the film. As Little Edie gives a tour of her bedroom she holds a birdcage and a poster advertising a world tour in her hands. She then goes on to explain how she would hang them next to each other on the wall. The juxtaposition shows Edie’s feelings of imprisonment and yearnings for the freedom of her youth. With the remarkable contrast between the two objects and the attention they are given in the film, it is hard to believe this moment was a coincidence. It raises questions about the reality of the film and suggests Edie is orchestrating her own narrative within the Maysles’ production. Instances of Edie’s directing can also be seen at the beginning of the film when she suggests what the brothers should capture next. 

American direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew ‘saw direct cinema as a ‘theatre without actors’.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250) The Maysles tried to faithfully follow this model but some could argue that with Edie’s flair for the dramatic she would often act for the camera. Edie’s acknowledgement of the camera’s presence distances the film from direct cinema norms. She makes reference to her outfit as ‘the best costume for today,’ indicating she sees each day the filmmakers are there as a performance. She gives directorial advice to the crew and shows an apparently exaggerated version of herself within her dance routines.

Direct cinema can be seen as an approach which disregards fictional elements. This would imply that everything we see on screen is the ‘truth’. However, it is through the editorial decisions that the ‘truth’ captured by the camera is given a meaningful narrative. Ultimately the final film is a presentation of the filmmakers’ interpretation of reality. ‘Given the editorial nature of the process, a documentary/non-fiction feature film can only ever represent a truth selected by…the filmmaker.’ (Young, 2002, p.14). John Grierson argued that documentaries are ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ and in ‘Grey Gardens’ examples of this can be seen. There are instances when one woman is talking and it suddenly cuts to the other’s reaction. The film was shot with one camera so the close up reaction shots of the women could not have been captured. Artistic liberties were obviously taken by the editor to choose an appropriate shot to enhance the dynamic witnessed by the single camera.

The editing techniques used contribute to the chaotic feel of the film. It is choppy and utilises jump cuts frequently. This suits the manner in which the story is told as it is highly fragmented and it challenges formulaic narrative structures by blurring time distinctions. It mimics the disharmonious lives the mother and daughter lead. It also suggests that they have both lost all concept of time. They don’t pay attention to what day of the week it is, nor the time of day. This idea is also captured by Little Edie who said ‘It’s difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.’ The women appear to have become jaded with the present and long for their lost youth.

Alongside the images, synchronous sound is played; all of which is diegetic. This is because with direct cinema, the filmmaker does not want to generate a synthetic emotional plea to the audience. Since both the women were aspiring entertainers, music is a pivotal part of the film. The Beales singing along to the records contributes to the often discordant sound of the documentary. The pair frequently squabble and talk over each other as they speak directly to the camera. The fly on the wall effect is furthered by this because in a fictional film, actors would generally wait for their cue to deliver lines. However, the way they are shown doing this suggests they are competing for the attention of the lens. This may not resonate with modern audiences as films with this kind of sound rarely give rise to commercial success. There is no narrator which is common in observational cinema films. There is a belief that interesting subjects and circumstances are enough to hold the target audience’s attention.

Jay Cocks (1976) scrutinized the film stating it was ‘an aimless act of ruptured privacy and an exploitation’. Grey Gardens did prove to be uncomfortable viewing for some. It was released at a time before reality television’s prominence, audiences were surprised and in some cases appalled by having such a detailed view into the Beale’s lives. The voyeuristic feeling the film generated in viewers may have been an effect of the fly on the wall style Grey Gardens was filmed in. However, in response to a slanderous review of the film Little Edie wrote, ‘We’re proud of it and couldn’t be more pleased. It’s us!’ she also defended Albert Maysles by saying he was a pioneer and because of this he will be criticised.

The long takes, diegetic sound, absence of narrator and the hand held camera movements create a free flowing and impossibly intimate view of the extraordinary life of two ordinary women. Albert Maysles ‘asserted that ‘the more personal [a film] is, the more it tells everybody’s story.’.’ Audiences can sympathise with the dysfunctional family dynamic and feel inspired by the women to go against the status-quo.

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