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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Albert and David Maysles, Grey Gardens (1975)

Little Edie (Edith Bouvier Beale) and Albert Maysles
(still from Grey Gardens, 1975)
no copyright infringement intended

Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary of the Maysles Brothers, tells the story of two women, mother and daughter. Big Edie and Little Edie. Two very kind persons deeply in decay, totally out of touch with the life running around.

The mother, Big Edie, in her eighties. Long time ago a well-known presence in the NY high society: a rich socialite with a lifestyle often eccentric while definitely good taste, an amateur singer organizing unforgettable parties at her mansion in East Hampton. That mansion was a great place to be, with a huge garden surrounding it on the ocean shore. The estate was known as The Grey Gardens (a name sounding perhaps weird; looking for an explanation I found in wikipedia that it was due to the special appearance put together by the garden walls, shore dunes, and ocean mist - and wikipedia was quoting in turn a post from 2013: A Return to Grey Gardens).

Meanwhile the estate got completely rundown. Like Big Edie, incapable any more of taking care of herself, almost bedridden, at the end of the road. Fully aware, therefore adding a touch of bitterness to her natural kindness.

The daughter, Little Edie, in her late fifties. At around twenty she had tried to enter the world of NY fashion and/or entertainment, whatever, without success. She was too kind, or too naive, too much a dreamer, too childish perhaps. At around thirty her life was already a failure. She came to live together with her mother (who was by then in her early sixties). To take care of the old lady? Rather to be taken care by? Anyway both went on in decaying. Together with the once famous mansion of fourteen rooms or so, now in shambles. No running water, garbage all over the place, holes in the walls, cats and raccoons on the loose, here and there beautiful portraits of them as young ladies, surrounded by cat feces and by mountains of old papers and magazines.

The two were closely related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: Big Edie was the aunt of the First Lady. Albert and David Maysles had originally intended to make a documentary about the sister of Jacqueline, Lee Radziwill, who told them about the Edie's. The two cinĂ©astes paid a visit to The Grey Gardens and what they saw there made them change the subject of their movie. They got the accept of the two ladies, moved there with their camera and began shooting. And soon the camera and the filming team became part of the odd world of Grey Gardens, surrounded, challenged,  and risking to be swallowed.

Watching this movie is tough. You feel the same challenge the camera did, the risk to be swallowed. However, there is something beyond the nude reality. Something ineffable. Name it holiness. Or better, name it humanity: everything there in the Grey Gardens is depressing, but it is so deeply human, that it touches the chords of the Universe. Two human beings failed, it's not only the story of the aunt and cousin of the First Lady of the United States. It is often the story next door, it is often our own story: old age, sickness, lost dreams, failure to keep up to the challenges of the present, and you still remain a human being. You can loose everything, your health, your fortune, the esteem of the others, you still keep the intrinsic beauty of a human being. And this makes Grey Gardens a masterpiece.

(Albert and David Maysles)



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