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The Criterion Collection presents
"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, do you know what I mean?"
DVD ReviewWho but Criterion could do justice to this exquisite piece of filmmaking? Once again I discover a hidden treasure between the covers of an inconspicuous-looking DVD case. Documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Salesman) captured the world of the Edith (Big Edie) Beales and her daughter, Edith Jr. (Little Edie), in their 1976 feature, Grey Gardens. As much by their presence as by their invisibility, the Maysles provide the canvas on which these two women paint the picture of their lives.
"Two roads diverged in yellow woods, and pondering one, I took the other, and that made all the difference." - Little Edie, misquoting poet Robert Frost
A beautiful young debutante, Edith Jr. had been born into the life of the blue-blooded—first cousin of Jaqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—and her life was to be one of the idle rich. She went to the best boarding schools, had all the right connections; she could have married any number of wealthy aristocrats. It can not be understated that it was a monumental commitment, when in 1952 she made the decision that would change her life forever: to return to her childhood home to care for her mother after her parents divorced. She would not leave again until after her mother had passed away some 27 years later.
Their home, Grey Gardens, is a 28 room mansion, located in the affluent seaside community of East Hampton, Long Island. Here, the Beales would come to national attention when a series of raids took place by inspectors from the Hampton Board of Health and the house was condemned. After decades of neglect, infested with rodents, and overrun by cats and other mammals living within its walls, the Beales faced eviction on the grounds that their estate had deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe and unsanitary to live in. The public was shocked and appalled at the conditions these relatives of the former First Lady were living in.
"The relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character." - Little Edie
The Maysles had first met the Beales when they were commissioned to assemble a home movie for Jackie O's sister, Lee Bouvier Radziwell, to be shot in and around the Hamptons, where she and her family had spent her childhood summers. As part of this expedition, they were to visit her reclusive aunt and cousin. The Maysles recognized that another kind of film could be made here, focused on the Beales, but when Radziwell saw the footage they came back with, the negatives were confiscated, and the filmmakers were asked never to film the family again. David remained in touch with the Beales though, and a year later returned to Grey Gardens to produce this documentary. The Maysles were welcomed into their world as family, and spent six weeks shooting on location. Through this series of conversations with the women together and individually, a portrait of the lives of these remarkable people unfolds before the camera. To avoid as much outside interference as possible, filming was done with only the brothers present, with the exception of the few guests the Beales entertained during the process. The result is an intimate exposition, which both Big and Little Edie felt accurately presented a vision in their lives.
Critics, on the other hand, were quick to condemn the Maysles, accusing them of exploiting a pair of certifiably wacky spinsters for their own celebrity, while playing on the misfortunes of relatives of the First Family. To the contrary, both Big and Little Edie can easily be seen enjoying the process—they wanted this story told, and were the first to screen it on its completion. While it would be accurate to say that these ladies were, at the very least, eccentric, there is little evidence that they were anything but happy with both the opportunity they had in making the film, or in its outcome.
"The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility." - Little Edie
This may not be an easy watch for many people, but I found it hard not to fall in love with these women; their interaction is a routine no writer could ever get away with. Whether it's Big Edie singing along to her old records or Little Edie in addressing the camera in her distinctive headwear and "best costume for the day," the pair mesmerize with relentless verbosity. Two scenes provide a perfect summation for the contents of this film: the first, a shot of a cruise ship lost in the hazy the horizon, is a metaphor for Little Edie, who expresses her regret for all the things she never got to do, blaming her mother for many of them. The other is a scene where Little Edie misquotes Robert Frost, providing a clear picture of her choices in life—she was not coerced into this situation, she chose it freely, as part of her responsibility to her class and family. While the two bicker away at each other, they also enjoy each others' company, revelling in song and dance on a daily basis. The line between fact and fiction is blurred in many of their recollections, but it is plain both rely on each other implicitly. This is the study of a relationship, in all its sadness, vulgarity and beauty.
As one becomes accustomed to the very colorful characters that these two ladies represent, it is easy to overlook their decidedly reclusive lifestyle. It is very difficult however, to witness the conditions in which they live, as we watch cats relieving themselves freely behind portraits in the bedroom, or visit the racoons in the attic, who Edie feeds religiously, as they dismantle portions of the house at their whimsy. One can only imagine what other "niceties" these women subject themselves to on a daily basis, be it fleas or other unthinkable and unsavory creatures lurking in their midst. However, despite their surroundings, their demeanor is unwaveringly jovial, their spirit high, and their outlook and reflections on life a breath of much needed fresh air. They revel in their nonconformity, and the Maysles have created a document of these people and their lives. As Big Edie is reported to have said on her deathbed: "What more is there to say, it's all in the film."
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: Criterion's transfer for Grey Gardens presents the film in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The stock used is inherently grainy, and this is represented here flawlessly, without any additional "digitalness" exhibited. Colors are vibrant when applicable, dependent upon the lighting conditions where the scenes were shot. The image is also naturally soft, and this looks like a faithful reproduction of the source material.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: All audio is recorded on location and completely unscripted, so there are times when it is difficult to fully discern what is being said. Due to the local conditions, there is also some level of hiss and background noise present. This was only really noticible during the opening credits, after which the onscreen action absorbed any attention that technical issues may have taken away from the presentation.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Albert Maysles, editor/directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, associate producer Susan Fromke
There is also an extensive audio interview with Little Edie that was published in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine in 1976, conducted by Kathryn G. Graham with Albert Maysles in attendance. Another fascinating look into the life and mind of this extraordinary and outspoken woman. This is a perfect supplement to the film.
A pair of video interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett focus on Little Edie's impact on their designs from their screenings of Grey Gardens. From the head pieces to her color combinations, both men credit her with a unique fashion sense that is reflected in their work.
An extensive photo gallery is also included. "The Family Scrapbook" contains 40 screens of vintage photos and newspaper clippings from the Beale's past, focusing on Little Edie and the period surrounding her official debut into society, as well as her modelling career. The "Behind The Scenes" section contains 95 photos shot during the filming of Grey Gardens. Finally, we have the "Cats" section, with 18 feline screens (including one with the resident racoon) of the cats lounging on and about the house.
The film's theatrical trailer and a TV trailer are also present.
I would also comment on Criterion's attention to detail in both the menu design and packaging, including duplicating the real family album graphics for the photo gallery, and the insert foldout fashioned after an astrology book Little Edie is seen reading in the film, where she describes her ideal husband. Be sure to let the film play through the credits and color bars for an additional "extra."
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsIn these days of the mega-special edition where a release's worth is based soley on the number of extras present on the disc, Criterion once again demonstrates that true value lies in the quality of the content, not just the quantity. Grey Gardens provides a perfect blend, and by the time one has digested this disc's contents, the appreciation of its subject and the people who made it is firmly established. The film provides a remarkable look at two interesting and intriguing personalities, whose choices would baffle most anyone; yet despite criticism to the contrary, their contentment is, using Edie's vocabulary, staunchly defined within the walls of Grey Gardens.
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