Stranger Than Fiction's Grey Garden's screening Wednesday night followed in step with the Museum of Moving Images' Cinema Eye Honors, who bestowed their Legacy Award to filmmakers Albert Maysles, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke the evening before. The creators of Grey Gardens also included Ellen Hovde and David Maysles. Ms. Hovde was unable to attend and D. Maysles passed away in the 1980's. I had watched Grey Gardens on DVD for the first time back in around 2000 or so. It had been on my must see list way too long and I finally took the time. I must confess, my first experience with Grey Gardens had mixed results. I was fascinated by the film's subjects, Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, (aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) and their co-dependent, complicated bond they shared. A passionate, loving and troubled mother-daughter relationship is the real story here, but it was the surrounding circumstances that left me feeling as though I had peeped in on a situation I shouldn't have. All be it beautiful, emotional and entertaining, those ingredients weren't enough for me at that time to justify the intrusion no matter how oddly in need of attention these ladies seemed to have been.
Then came Wednesday night where I sat down to a full house at the IFC theater to watch Grey Gardens for the second time and I'm glad I did. Having a better understanding of documentary filmmaking, experiencing the film with a live audience and probably just being at a different place in my life, seemed to offer a new perspective on Grey Garden's and its subjects. Watching a film with others can often strongly influence your own experience of a film and this was definitely the case this time around. I immediately knew the audience was with the subjects all the way.
The editing is gorgeous and done in pure verite and without a classic narrative structure. We learn about the "Edies" through telling behavioral moments or snippets of stories and overtime, we begin to realize maybe who they once were and maybe even how they got there. The filmmakers never once cut to a photo montage of historical images to give us a pictorial flow chart of their youths. Instead it's the ladies that show us as they riffle though old photographs of themselves from beauty pageants to socialite photography and paintings. I suppose that sort of approach the film took isn't anything revolutionary now, but I it was then. This film has been reviewed and analyzed among much praise and controversy over the years so I don't need to go into a critique that would largely be inadequate compared to so many others.
Ms. Meyer who joined host Thom Powers and co-director Mr. Maysles for a discussion afterward said this film took two years to cut. Mr. Maysles said they had hours of wild sound from leaving the mic on and placing it between the "Edies" beds while the filmmakers would go nap in their van (the audio was later released as part of a book entitled Grey Gardens written by Albert Maysles' kids, Sara and Rebekah)
I brought up Grey Gardens because my new understanding of it is that, as Mr. Maysles said in the post screening conversation, there is a point where you shouldn't go even if you have the access. These ladies weren't crazies that were incapable of making their own decisions, they were eccentric. Mr. Maysles also mentioned their fondness of the film and that they weren't a bit surprised when they saw themselves on the big screen. They were aware of who they were.