Characters II

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Grey Gardens

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 11, 2015

“It’s the gentlemen callers,” say the Maysles brothers at the beginning of this remarkable, sui generis documentary. And Grey Gardens does seem very glass menagerie, though without Tennessee Williams’ artful tidiness, or his courteous, consoling symbols. Things start out that way anyway; by the end this astonishing mother/daughter pair have come to resemble Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, all bickering and passivity and terrible inertia, with occasional flashes of searing affection. Williams’ play gives us a pale, poignant partiality. Beckett’s creations are more across the board, suggesting a universal abandonment, or despair. (With laughs, mind you.) Both playwrights stylize and distill, of course. On the other hand, these ladies’ lives are the real McCoy. There’s not much hope or reason in this world. How can they go on? They go on.

Grey Gardens has lots to say here about disappointment and failure, and about disastrous devotion to the past. It’s an account, either courageous or practically pathological, of how past events, whether dear or disastrous, can give shape to the present. They may even take it over, completely. There’s also considerable here about class, obviously, and about our unseemly, even morbid fascination with celebrity. (If the two Edies weren’t related, by marriage, to the Kennedys, would we care?) Less obviously, more profoundly, Grey Gardens says a great deal about beauty—both of them, even now—age and, yes, poverty.

Is it exploitative? Sort of, complicatedly. Extraordinarily funny, too. You can’t write dialogue like this. Just as much, even more, one leaves with the powerful impression that you can’t fix situations like this, either.

Here is the basic ambiguity, the final wealth of non-fiction film. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, a single film can effectively illustrate any number of theses. It can also, regardless of that individual perspective, contain and honour contradicting multitudes.