Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Documentary Mondays

I've established previously that Monday night is the most serious night of the week for movies. Now, my wife and I have chosen to watch documentaries on Monday nights as a special summer series. (Not that documentaries have to be serious, but on average I'd say they probably are.)

Our first was last night. I don't know if I'll write about them each week, but I'll write about the first one at least.

It was her choice: Grey Gardens. Not the HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange -- see, that wouldn't be a documentary. Rather, this is the film that brought Edith Beale and her daughter Edie into our lives for the first time, way back in 1975, directed by the Maysles brothers, who also directed Gimme Shelter.

If you've heard about either the old or new incarnation of Grey Gardens but don't know anything further, let me catch you up. It's essentially the story (this is a strong word for it, as we'll see in a moment) of the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier, otherwise known as Jackie Kennedy, otherwise known as Jackie Onassis. Edith Beale (a.k.a. Big Edie) and Edith Beale (a.k.a. Little Edie, or just Edie) were once both singers of some sort and have come from wealth, but have aged into eccentrics living in a decrepit mansion in Long Island full of cats and raccoons. They could have been the inspiration for the television show Hoarders. At the time of filming, Big Edie is pushing 80 and her daughter is 56. You may remember her daughter for the head wraps she always wore, or perhaps I just remember her for that because Barrymore was always wearing head wraps in the ads for the HBO movie.

As I hinted earlier, there isn't much of a story. Albert and David Maysles (and two other credited directors) just turn on their cameras and basically let the two batty old women go at it. What follows is an hour and 34 minutes of free associations about their lives, their acquaintances, their aspirations, their likes, their dislikes. The only real guidepost the Maysleses provide is newspaper clippings at the beginning, which establish their relationship to the former first family, and include the detail that the women were nearly evicted from the mansion for health code violations. It's kind of hard to believe that the version of the mansion seen in this film is the clean version.

A couple things I want to say about this film. First off it reminded me how unusual it is for me to watch old documentaries. I'd say that 85% of the documentaries I've seen were made since the year 2000. Then it would probably be 10% from the 1990s and the remainder from before that. In fact, off-hand I can only name a couple documentaries I've seen that were from before 1990: Barbara Kopple's American Dream, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, and the first several installations of the Up series. There are probably others, but these are the only ones that come to mind.

And so I was reminded how different the documentary form was back then. My wife, knowing a bit more about this film and these directors than I did, explained that the Maysles' fly-on-the-wall approach was intended to try to remove their own perspective from the process as much as possible. She said a film like Grey Gardens, without a narrative spine and with very few things that qualify as editorial decisions, was intended as a reaction to the slanted documentaries where the directors chose which talking heads to include and which not to include, thereby cementing their bias.

It's an honorable approach to documentary filmmaking, even if the thinking is somewhat flawed. Maybe not flawed, but a tad idealized. A director's very choice to make a film about a particular subject means that he or she has already taken a position. Once you turn on the camera, you are introducing artifice to the scenario, and not getting a perfect distillation of "real" life. However, I'd say that the unfiltered blathering of Edith and Edie is as close to their real selves as anyone could hope to get. By choosing to focus on grandiose personalities who are given to talking about themselves in open and shocking ways, you reduce the amount of difference between their real selves and their film selves. They aren't by nature inclined to keep anything hidden.

But back to my original point about how different this film was from something we would see today. Rarely would a modern documentary filmmaker essentially just leave his/her audience at sea the way the Maysles brothers do here. That's not a complaint about their style, it's just an observation about the difference between the attention spans of modern audiences and audiences from 35 years ago. I mean, it's not like you need to absorb every little nugget of what the Beales are saying -- I don't think you could, even if you wanted to. But today, most documentarians would assume we need a crutch to get us through, plenty of exposition and narrative structure so we can swallow that presumably tough documentary pill.

And I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I needed that crutch last night as well. While on the one hand it was a relief to know that there was not really any possibility I would get "lost" and miss a key detail, on the other, the free-form nature of the film made it hard for me to stay awake. I can't blame Grey Gardens entirely for this -- it's my son who deserves the blame, since he's pretty much awake starting at 5:30 these days. Even starting the film at 8 o'clock was too late for this tired father. I used a couple stimulants to try to get me through, but the remainder of the 5-hour energy drink I started here was again a disappointment. What really gave me the kick to endure through the movie? A couple shots of tabasco sauce, the first of which gave me a bad case of the hiccups. At least when you're hiccuping you're not falling asleep.

But as I said, there was a certain comfort to knowing that if I did fall asleep, it wouldn't ruin my enjoyment of the film. About halfway through, we acknowledged that we had learned as much about these women as we needed to. Not that they were starting to bore us -- by their very nature they are the opposite of boring -- but that nothing further we would see would make us understand them any more or any less. They were both talkative agoraphobes and paranoids, who paradoxically tolerated the invasion of movie cameras when they spent the rest of their lives worried about people creeping on to their property and trying to get them. Edith Beale may just have been old, but Edie Beale's behavior was clearly a function of some kind of personality disorder. Despite their questionable mental health, however, these are not women you'd describe as depressed. They seem to derive a perverse enjoyment from living in their squalor and essentially feeding each other's delusions, and therefore, we as an audience are charmed by them as well.

Next up it's my choice, and I'm fast-forwarding back to the present day. After taking next Monday off for our trip back to Maryland for my friend's wedding, we'll be resuming with Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud, featuring Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge. So, some slightly different musical geniuses than the mother and daughter in Grey Gardens.


Don Handsome said...

I also recently watched this. I found that the thrill of immersion wore off really quickly…I guess you can throw me into the category of needing a crutch as well. Shame on us.

I’ll take the shame game one step further and confess that when I watched it I found myself deciding that if Grey Gardens had not been a documentary but rather an immersive character driven fictional movie, I would have been enthralled by it. The Beales are weird enough that you CAN’T make them up, but I guess I think it would have been much cooler if they did. Shame on me.

Now you have to check out Part 2…The Beales of Grey Gardens. Its not a sequel, I guess. It was made much more recently by the same directors. Its assembled from the left over footage from Grey Gardens and it supposedly goes into a lot of additional and insightful detail about the Beales. This is a fact that I am not going to check.

Vancetastic said...

I hear you on this being slightly more interesting as a fictional film. I'm wondering if that goes back to our discussion about how as much as we love documentaries, they can't compare to the best fiction films.

Um, yeah, I probably won't watch that other film. I think I've seen as much as I need to see of them. (However, I'm now more curious about Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange playing fictitious versions of them, which dovetails with my comment above.)