dir. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer
[This post is part of my Blind Spot Series, in which I watch, for the first time, famous movies I should have seen long ago. And seeing as the movies in this series are generally well known and regarded, I don't necessarily discuss their plots or thoroughly critique them. These movies have already been analyzed to death; so anything I could bring to the table would be superfluous at best. What follows is merely my reaction to watching Grey Gardens for the first time.]
As I'm sure I've mentioned numerous times before, I grew up dirt poor. And no, this wasn’t that phony “money’s a little tight right now, so you’ll have to go to canoe camp instead of yacht camp” poor; I’m talking public housing, food stamp poor. And although I'm no longer shit poor—though I'm still just scraping by, for the most part—I still feel poor. Indeed, I’ve a feeling, even were I to get rich (not gonna happen) I’d always have a poor mentality; I’d always have poor rage. Meaning, I’ll probably always be a bit none-too-fond of richers.
So, understandably, I don’t generally seek out entertainments based on richers; but if said entertainments feature said richers getting comeuppances, well, it’s usually a surefire guaranteed way of putting a smile on my face. Which is what I was expecting with Grey Gardens. Having a vague understanding of the Maysles film (formerly wealthy mother-daughter codependents languish in their decaying mansion), part of me was hoping to experience the slightest bit of schadenfreude when watching this documentary.
Boy was I wrong. Not only did I find the Beales’ story compelling, not I only did I sympathize with their situation, I felt gross for watching the movie. You see, I just couldn't shake the feeling that the Maysles were exploiting these women for use as a human freak show. Which, as I said, I initially wanted; but this movie made me do some soul-searching, made me rethink my expectations—but not in a good way.
Now I can’t get into the heads of the Maysles or the Beales—nor would I pretend to—but one has to wonder why the acclaimed documentary filmmakers chose the Beales as their focus. Did they really hope to document a subject in dire need of explication, or did they think, “step right up, folks, witness the horror that time and deteriorating mental states have wrought.” As to the Beales, a very valid point can be made that they agreed to participate in the film, so any accusations of exploitation are therefore null and void. But mentally this duo is not all there (which, of course, is part of the appeal of this movie). Why did they choose to participate in the film? Maybe they just wanted attention. Maybe they just wanted someone to talk to.
Of course, I guess you could say that what I do on the blog/podcast is no different than the Beales agreeing to have their lives exposed. As you well know if you regularly follow my shit, I’m an extreme emotional exhibitionist. I have no problem revealing the sort of personal stories most people would rather keep hidden. Is what I do necessary or compelling? No; but I continue to put myself out there. I really don’t know why I do it, to be honest. Maybe I just like attention. The difference is that I have control over the way my story is exposed; it’s not up to the whims of another artist (fuck it, I’ll call myself an artist). What I’m saying is I’m exploiting myself, so I don’t know if it should count.
Of course, one can argue that most documentaries are exploitative to an extent. Sure, a sympathetic filmmaker may follow the wishes of his subjects and only film what has been agreed to, but the very act of editing a film takes control away from the subject. Even the most faithful representation of the subject matter will, in the end, be guided by the voice of the filmmaker. Meaning, the subject no longer has agency over the way her story is told. She is merely a player in someone else’s constructed narrative.
But to return to one of my initial points, Grey Gardens left me with a big question: What is the purpose of this film? What does Grey Gardens offer other than a front row seat to decay? Is this really necessary? What does Grey Gardens offer, after all, that couldn’t be supplied by any number of reality shows. I really don't know what the difference is between Grey Gardens and shows such as Hoarders or Honey Boo Boo. (Granted I've never seen either of those shows so I could be way off base here.) I really can’t understand why Grey Gardens is considered art and reality shows are accorded “harbingers of the downfall of civilization” status.
And here is my real issue: the acclaim afforded Grey Gardens. Look, we humans can be a perverse lot; we’re all rubberneckers to an extent. Though many wouldn’t admit it, we all have varying levels of fascination with the things respectable society dictates should be kept hidden. That’s why the most depraved news stories get the most attention. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to traffic in the freak show element of human nature—whether as exploiter or spectator—at least own it. We’re all in the gutter; just admit it.
Dave's Rating: I have no idea how to rate this movie.