Criterion Files #123: How Cameras Changed Everything in ‘Grey Gardens’

Criterion FilesI had the privilege of seeing the surviving Maysles brother, Albert, do a Q&A after a public screening of Grey Gardens (1976). During the discussion, somebody asked him the inevitable question regarding how the presence of the camera changed the very subject he was documenting. It’s an interesting and essential question for any documentary filmmaker to consider, especially when one is engaging in the direct verite style rather than a traditional retrospective style, because it’s simplistic for the filmmaker to consider themselves “objective” or “invisible” when putting a camera on their subject: the presence of the camera changes things.

Albert Maylsles responded with an amusing story about how the conversations the brothers heard between “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” outside the house when not filming were exactly the same as when they were inside. While this is no doubt the case as the eccentric Beales would certainly “be themselves” no matter the occasion or circumstance, with all due respect Mr. Maysles’s assessment of the question was a bit too narrow. Putting cameras within the aging walls of Grey Gardens did, in fact, change everything.

I’m not only talking here about the immediate, physical implications surrounding the material reality of the cameras’ presence (that is, that while the Beales’ personalities were no doubt consistent, the presence of the camera changed the orientation of their address in interaction, especially with Little Edie as she continually looks to the Maylses’s for consolation when arguing with her mother or to perform for them (that is, their cameras) in hopes of a life of stardom), but the greater interventions that Grey Gardens had on Grey Gardens.

Grey Gardens is probably the most successful documentary of all time. I’m not speaking in simple terms of box office or popularity upon its original release, but the vast and incredible role the film has played in culture ever since. I can’t think of another non-fiction film that has made a trace in as many other media forms as this film. Grey Gardens was adapted into a Broadway musical and at least two plays, remade as an original HBO movie starring Lessica Lange and Drew Barrymore (much of which is about the making of the documentary itself), and the film has had a more pervasive but less definable influence in fashion and other forms of pop culture. The lives of the Beales changed dramatically by the release of this film.

But what is it about this film in particular that has resonated so much with audiences in the decades following its release? At the end of this year and in the months leading up to last week’s Oscar ceremony much has been made of a so-called “documentary boom” in which the non-fiction format has made a quiet explosion in terms of quality, style, entertainment value, and appeal. Yet not even some of the highest-grossing documentaries of the past decade have had quite the influence or experienced the pop-cultural ubiquity that Grey Gardens has.

Grey Gardens is, admittedly, a difficult film to watch from today’s vantage point as the verite style doesn’t provide us the same easy points-of-access that contemporary documentaries do. We aren’t told how to think and feel about the overwhelming, intimate, and sometimes claustrophobic subject matter we’re experiencing here. On the one hand, one could see it as a comedy about two eccentric shut-ins. While the Beales certainly have a chemistry that is often very funny, this framework would be superficial, uninsightful, dismissive, and mean. On the other hand, one could see it as a cautionary tale of two lives that never quite found their place in the world, but this framework is condescending, condemnatory, and risks confusing “eccentricity” or “non-normativity” with something more extreme like “mental illness.”

My guess is that the Maylses don’t intend for us to laugh at them or feel pity for them. The movie is both funny and sad, but it is also heartwarming and occasionally beautiful. As much as you might not want it for yourself, the Beales have found a lifestyle that works for them.

This balance is a difficult one to strike for the contemporary documentary viewer because so many subject-centric films that have followed in the wake of Grey Gardens don’t align us within such a nuanced sphere of experience and empathy. Everything from American Movie to Catfish have oscillated (perhaps too much) between the empathetic act of witnessing and the condescending or self-righteous act of laughing at or feeling oneself superior to the subject at hand. Grey Gardens, by contrast, confronts our emotional range and human complexity, and is thus all the more challenging and rewarding as a result.

But Grey Gardens gains even more meaning when looked at as part of the Maysles’ larger body of work. One can view the equally brilliant Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and finally Grey Gardens as a subject-specific trilogy that ultimately (through no direct intention of their own, just as Gimme Shelter ultimately became something dramatically different than what the Maysles’s originally set it out to be) framed a perfect summary of the drastic transition in the American experience between 1968 and 1976.

Salesman (1968), whose time of release evidences further that the “counterculture” was truly “counter” and not as dominant as they are retrospectively scene, took a characteristically empathetic lens to the “average” “squares” of society, and through exploring the lives and daily struggles of a group of door-to-door Bible salesman, gave an account of the postwar American Dream of 1950s middle-class triumph and showed how much of an aged product of the 1950s, yet one in which those involved believed in wholeheartedly in the face of the pressures of the open market. Gimme Shelter (1970) heralded the death of counterculture through a shattering act of live violence caught on film at a Rolling Stones concert. And six years later, Grey Gardens signaled the death of the classic American aristocracy. Grey Gardens itself provides the perfect metaphor for this transition in American class and culture as the vestiges of class, propriety, and high society are buried nostalgically in the ruins of the estate. The Beales are “shut-ins” not for reasons of psychological disorder, but because they no longer exist in a world that makes sense to them, so they spend their days in the mausoleum of Grey Gardens, reminiscing on a life that was and hoping for a life that will never be – but, of course, not without their signature wit and unique style.

Ignore that camera crew following you and read more Criterion Files

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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