Thursday, October 04, 2007

Grey Gardens

"Grey Gardens" is a documentary about an elderly mother and her upper middle-aged daughter. This movie is apparently being made into a musical though this bit of information is unrelated to how I heard of it. I first learned of it as an incidental mention in a non-related post on some web site or another. The reason a movie was made about these two women was that they were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy and their home was in such disarray that health authorities were threatening to evict them and tear down the house. I'm guessing that any other pair of old ladies in a similar predicament wouldn't have been movie-worthy but it's hard to resist the opportunity to embarrass a famous person with her relatives (even when she has nothing to do with the situation). After all, the press couldn't stay away from Billy Carter while Jimmy was in the White House despite the fact that there was no redeeming news value in covering him.

The documentary about the life of the Beales was made in 1976 and, by that time, the house had been cleaned up to a more sanitary state. It was still run-down and the mother, big Edie, and the daughter, little Edie, were living in a fashion which would be unacceptable for most modern people. Their cats were urinating and defecating in the rooms they slept and ate in. There were raccoons chewing through the restored walls and living in the attic. Little Edie encouraged these animals by feeding them bread and cat food so clearly there was no wish to rid the house of them. Everything was old, dirty and weathered-looking. While both Edies looked clean and adequately groomed, the situation they were living in showed distinct signs of heading down the same path that had brought local authorities to their doorstep and caused local newspapers to write about how Jackie Kennedy's relatives were living in squalor.

"Grey Gardens" isn't so much about the decay of living in a huge country house as much as it is about the relationship and mental state of the two women in the movie and how their lives went from being one of wealth and society to the sorry state they were in at that time. Big Edie married a wealthy man who managed to slowly lose all his money then later divorced her. Little Edie never accepted any of the lucrative proposals from wealthy men that were proffered and chased unrealistic dreams of fame.

The movie shows how these two women spent their days re-hashing the past pointlessly and unproductively and, particularly, how the daughter constantly blamed her mother for trapping her in their country home requiring her care. They are a portrait of a family on an emotional treadmill going around and around about the same things. Their communication never advances their relationship and issues that are no longer relevant are never gotten past. One of the many things a viewer can take away from this movie is that the only one you hurt by hanging on to the past is yourself.

To the outsider, watching them carp or bicker sometimes came across as a little crazy. Sometimes they'd both be talking at the same time along different paths, clearly not heeding one another. At other times, Little Edie would appear to blithely dance and sing around while her mother offered a steady narrative of constructive criticism. The level of intimacy with the home life and discourse of these two women that the viewer has is almost obscene in its proximity. You get the distinct feeling that we are not meant to be watching this sort of interaction between family members and that it's the type of thing that should occur in private between people who know one another only as family members can. Unless you're a hopeless voyeur, you can't help but feel a little guilty for bearing witness to the goings-on.

The interesting thing is that, as incoherent or nutty as these women seemed to be at times, you could see that Big Edie had lived a life she was pleased with and had few regrets about how she lived in either her past or present and that Little Edie, despite all her complaining and bellyaching about wanting to get out of their country home, had a real zest for life. She seemed to cling to unfulfilled dreams because they inspired more passion in her than acting on them (and inevitably failing at them) would have.

After watching the Edies (who are both deceased now), I had to wonder if the normal exchange between any given family which feels so natural and "normal" to them look alien and frightening to outsiders or were these women exceptionally weird? I do know that there are people who sing together as part of their daily life. In fact, I've been known to idly hum or sing to myself when I'm alone. Would I look crazy as I'm vaguely singing to myself if someone played peeping Tom on my life?

Would we all look this crazy and dysfunctional to voyeuristic viewers and is this the root of what reality television programming is attempting to tap into? This documentary felt like one of the earliest forms of reality programming though it does have enough depth to make you think about weightier issues whereas modern reality programming seems designed only to make you think you're better than the people embarrassing themselves for your entertainment.

The main problem with (modern) reality programming is that the compassion of the viewer is unknown. People will carry their psychological needs with them into the picture and immediately start making judgments as a means of elevating themselves in their own estimation. If you watch Grey Gardens, you won't find yourself feeling superior or enjoying schaudenfreude at the downfall of these formerly wealthy and socially well-connected women. You'll find yourself feeling a wide range of emotions but most of all feeling that these two ladies are more real than anyone you ever see on so-called reality T.V.

No comments: