Before they are made flesh and born into this world, works of art exist as clouds of pure possibility. Every work is born of ideas and the creative process requires artists to make those ideas material through a combination of different elements including plot, character, style, and theme. While certain ideas bond more naturally with certain elements and certain combinations of elements prove more or less popular at certain times, it is the artist who sits at the creative mixing desk and shapes how their idea will move from possibility to actuality.
Humans may be flawed and finite creatures but commerce assumes us to be more broken than we are. One side effect of this great conspiracy of under-estimation is that the marketplace tends to interpret our natural desire for different stories as a desire for different sets of mixes. Thus, mainstream realist literature encourages us to yearn for stories that can only be told with the character slider all the way up while Hollywood encourages us to watch films that require a focus on plot and a narrow explosive-laden visual style. Even art house film falls into this trap by emphasising a certain set of stylistic tics and then giving us more or less character and theme. There may be sound economic and historical reasons for this elemental fetishism but it does tend to encourage the assumption that trade-offs between the different elements represent some sort of zero-sum game. Why else remain wedded to such absurd superstitions as the belief that style can be severed from content or that thematically complex works cannot be stylish, exciting and full of humanity?
The truth is that the basic elements of artistic composition relate to each other in ways that are almost completely unpredictable. Some films – like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker – feature no characters, follow no plot, manifest no interest in the world and yet somehow manage to work on every conceivable level. Other works – like The Force Awakens –feature lots of plot, lots of character, a limitless budget for the provision of visual spectacle, a real desire to use mythological tropes to say something profound about human relationships, and yet somehow manage to be boring, empty, and utterly disposable. One film that demonstrates how emphasising certain elements can have unexpected consequences is the (recently re-mastered and re-issued) cult documentary Grey Gardens.
The name ‘Grey Gardens’ refers to a 14-room mansion in the Hamptons near New York. Though designed in the late 19th Century, Grey Gardens was not actually built until after the death of the people who had originally commissioned the design. Purchased by a wealthy industrialist, the house soon became an ‘estate’ thanks to a series of expensive alterations including the creation of an elaborate set of gardens including exotic species and imported stonework. In 1924, the house was acquired by Phelan Beale, a New York lawyer who had married into the same Bouvier clan that produced the future Mrs. JFK.
In 1945, Beale sent his wife Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale a telegram from Mexico announcing his intension to seek a divorce. Despite decades of marriage and the production of several children, the marriage ended with a settlement providing Edith Bouvier Beale with nothing but an enormous house and an allowance too small to pay for its upkeep. Having been raised to be nothing but a wife to successful men, Edith Bouvier Beale sank into a weird state of dependence upon a series of men who effectively lived off of her allowance in return for ‘helping’ with either her non-existent singing career or the maintenance on the house. When antiques began disappearing, Edith stopped going outside and her estranged daughter Edie moved home to serve as her permanent live-in companion.
The reason I opened my discussion of Grey Gardens with a load of background detail is that the entire film has a weirdly post-apocalyptic feel. The documentary opens with two women shouting to each other through what appears to be a set of freshly-painted ruins where ivy blocks out the sun and feral cats escape to the garden through a hole in the wall. We then cut to a scene in which one of the house’s inhabitants talks about the house having been ‘raided’ while a horrified-looking gardener struggles to clear some sort of path through what appears to be acres of virgin forest.
What happened is that Edith’s lack of money meant that Grey Gardens went completely untended for decades until the local council decided to investigate the property. Citing numerous building code violations as well as concerns about shoals of feral cats and raccoons living on the grounds, the council issued an eviction notice that was only thwarted by a last-minute intervention by Jackie Kennedy and a few other family members who provided ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ Edie with enough money to make the house legally inhabitable. By the time the makers of Grey Gardens arrived on the scene, both Big and Little Edie had managed to get both themselves and their home into some sort of semi-acceptable order. The result is a film set in a beautifully decaying mansion where two aging aristocratic beauties grind their way through the same patterns of trauma and nostalgia that allowed their slow decline into post-apocalyptic isolation.
Despite both a title alluding to the name of the house and a visual aesthetic that keeps returning to images of abandoned rooms and overgrown gardens, Grey Gardens is a documentary where the ‘character’ slider has been moved all the way to the top. In effect, the film is one long character study of two fiercely eccentric women.
‘Little’ Edith Bouvier Beale is unarguably one of the richest characters in late-20th Century American film. Within five minutes of her first appearance, she looks over her shoulder at the cameraman and observes that Grey Gardens is a place where the line between present and past tends to disappear.
The confusion of present and past is absolutely central to the puzzle that is Edie. For example, despite being a middle-aged shut-in who seldom speaks to anyone except for her own mother, Edie behaves like a very young woman who is still struggling to assert her own identity and begin her adult life. This reversion to a post-adolescent state seems to be grounded in the fact that the film was shot not long after Edie managed to lose a lot of weight and acquire a physical shape much closer to the one she enjoyed as a 20-something society beauty and aspiring dancer. This performance is beautifully underlined by the fact that she dresses in nothing but swimming costumes, miniskirts, and scarves that have been safety-pinned together. While Edie’s fondness for revealing clothing might be accounted for in terms of a lengthy alienation from expectations as to how women in 50s ought to dress, you could also blame the fact that Edie’s lack of money and change of shape have forced her back into her old clothes. Either way, the result is the kind of cluelessness that feels rather uniquely young, like a teenage girl who tries to dress for a family lunch and winds up wearing way too much make-up and way too little skirt.
Edie’s arrested development is also evident from the way that she imagines herself returning to the stage as a dancer and practices her dance moves to the military marching band music that featured in the kind of glamorously patriotic dance routines which, though prominent in 1940s light entertainment, were entirely absent from 1970s popular culture. At one point, Edith goes so far as to suggest that Edie might want to try out for the Folies Bergeres despite a) Edie being in her mid-50s and b) said Parisian music hall scene having long since been replaced by alleys littered with strip clubs and porn cinemas.
Despite both Edie and Edith appearing oblivious to the changes that had reshaped America in the aftermath of World War II, it is quite clear that Edie’s desire to return to the life she had before moving in with her mother in on the level of fantasy rather than outright delusion. In fact, both women appear to spend their days working to undermine the other’s fantasies of a return to days of wealth and happiness.
As one might expect of a film that focuses primarily on character, Grey Gardens lacks anything that might be described as a conventional plot. However, while the film lacks either an animating argument or a three-act structure, it does acquire a structure simply by virtue of the fact that its subjects lead extraordinarily repetitive lives. The Bouvier Beales are drowning in history and cannot escape the accumulated trauma of the mistakes that lead them to their current sorry state.
For example, not a day goes by without Edie referring to either how much she misses New York or how much she resents her mother’s decision to sabotage her fledgling relationship with a Polish immigrant. These themes are never far from the women’s conversation and yet they resurface in different ways depending upon the general mood of the house. When the women are getting on, Edith gently reminds Edie of how miserable she was in New York and how much her mother appreciates her presence. Conversely, when the women quarrel, Edith forcibly points out that Edie never even trained as a dancer and that her attempts to find herself a husband resulted in nothing more than a squalid affair with a married man.
At first, Edith’s fantasies appear more humble and endearing in that they revolve around the idea that a bed-ridden old woman could easily whip her trained voice back into shape and return to the stage. However, this rather simple fantasy connects with Edith’s ruinous desire for men to come into her life and magically solve her problems. Despite this fantasy having resulted in Edith acquiring two long-term parasites, the film begins with her attempting to butter up a local handyman who responds to Edith’s mildly flirtatious kindness with a degree of informality and useful objects scavenged from other jobs. Just as Edith systematically undermines Edie’s desire to leave Grey Gardens, Edie works to prevent her mother from acquiring another long-term dependent. What makes this relationship particularly strange and unhealthy is the fact that both sets of fantasies are entirely compatible: Edie could move out and her place could be filled by a live-in handyman and yet neither of these things ever happens because both women are intelligent enough to recognise their absolute dependence upon each other. Edie needs Edith to play along with the idea that she’s a pretty young aspiring dancer and Edith needs Edie to play along with the idea that she was a talented singer.
Like the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, Edith and Edie are bound together, trapped between the Scylla of existential unravelling and the Charybdis of a world that refuses to acknowledge their existence. Together they can at least aspire to be something worthwhile, apart they are nothing more than aristocrats so incapable of looking after themselves that they filled their home with dead raccoons while snake-hipped charmers carried their family heirlooms out the back door.
The people and relationships in Grey Gardens are so impossibly real that their stories sail right past the personal and attain the truly universal. Edith and Edie aren’t just two aging women forced together by lack of money, they embody a paradox that is central to the human condition: How people see us frequently undermines how we see ourselves and yet, without those other people, our assertions of identity are effectively meaningless. It is no accident that Edie rekindled her identity as an aspiring dancer after her house was raided and her extended family stepped in to save her from homelessness. The world asserted itself and Edie felt compelled to assert herself right back.
Grey Gardens is a magical film as despite the filmmakers putting all of their eggs in the basket of character, the documentary somehow manages to work on every conceivable level. The images of the ruined mansion are not only striking, they also speak directly to the film’s themes and characters that present themselves to us with a pacing that is never anything less than captivating.