Quixotic and paranoid in equal measure, Grey Gardens’ protagonists Big and Little Edie Bouvier outstrip a legion of Rocky Horror vamps for moxie and general disarray. They live in a perpetual fugue state that also doubles as filmmaker Albert and David Maysles’ vision of the American Mishap. If the 1970s carried a stench of permeating, askew discombobulation for the American public, Big and Little Edie serve as reflections that perverse economic conditions don’t always heed seemingly iron-clad class boundaries and notions of cultural capital. Beyond that, their connection to the Kennedy family not only enhances the admittedly trashy, voyeuristic pleasure of the film. It also transforms the film into an off-kilter work of near-speculative fiction, like some demented teenagers’ cultural pile-up of inverted Americana iconography and nastied-up sitcom routines. The infested, post-hurricane manse at the center of Grey Gardens is like some parallel universe missing link between Munsters’-level suburban middle-class cultural airs and Addams Family-caliber aristocratic eccentricity. How fitting is it that the film’s central gruesome twosome boasts both the populist twinge of desire to belong and the need to assert difference from the rapidly homogenizing American public, a central dialectic of American culture’s existence post-WWII. These two blue-bloods act like reptiles and yet, in their own way, they reflect an equally mordant and morose breakfast nook of the wayward American dream.
A haunted sanitarium of a house, Grey Gardens is a truly demented movie location, a morass of unquiet madness barely subsumed underneath a layer of tentative domesticity. The tattered newspapers all over the floor resonate with a vision of American history desperately trying to cling to faded memories of its past, all while churning the present into a murky maelstrom of half-forgotten bygone mayhem. The place practically looks like two-hundred years of American history had an East Egg paintball match in the innards of the mansion and then just up and moved on, leaving only these two women as a mausoleum or a totem to its past self. It is the sight of a space that did not take the scenic route to its present state of affairs.
Exhibiting an undying kind of empathy for this ambiguous, woebegone space, the film cuts through the potentially objectifying air of two documentarians observing the dyspeptic mise-en-scene of the space with the soul-sick lurch of their camera. The Maysles’ primary present-day tactic is to register a suggestion of this past violence by letting the camera needle snag wherever it can through simply existing in this place. A place that feels like the halitosis-fueled mummy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald book so afraid of heterogeneity that it willingly shipwrecks itself in its own insularity lest it have to participate in wider democracy. By film’s end, the house feels less like a stray outlier and more like an immanent symptom of some particular American disease.
Yet, if the house is ultimately the star of the film, the two women who occupy it are not about to sit by and let it hog all the glory. Even among themselves, the two Bouviers register a competitive streak, like two Norma Desmonds hosting a dinner party to honor and throw shade at the other, living in a contradictory symbiosis with each other that is both mutualism and parasitism. The same could be said of their collective relationship to their abode, as though their grand gesticulations, gilded announcements, and bold provocations represent the two women fighting for control of the camera against the cat-shit-encrusted proscenium they’ve staged for themselves. Fittingly then, the mother-daughter pair suggest a live-wire drama like they’re living out the last dimming flickers of a perpetual three-act theater play playing out in their minds, making preparations for a drama that happened decades ago and has only now returned with the presence of the camera in their lives. There’s a haughty hostility to the battle of observer and performer that reunites the two Bouviers with an audience, allowing the lights to shine on their aristocratic stars once again. Here, the film speaks to that all-too common shared addiction for wanting to be weird enough to have people watch and care about you. Andy Warhol must have registered it as a field day.
After the fallout, Grey Gardens’ most lasting effect may actually be jeopardizing the watch-and-observe platonic ideal that was both the dream of the direct cinema movement, as well as the movement’s necessarily illusory albatross. Put more directly, the husky, full-throated drama on display instigated by the palpable dialectic between performers and camera cry foul on the direct cinema movement’s belief that it ever could point a camera at a subject and register an unbiased, net-neutral, unaffected opinion of them. To understand how life will imitate art no matter what, one needs only remember Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and its elusive, self-manipulating image of Bob Dylan as a man cognizant of and massaging his image out of the camera. Grey Gardens merely pushes that performative aspect of reality to the forefront. Which means that there’s a little of everyone in Big and Little Edie as long as the theatrical itch in all of us remains. People will always find a way to infuse their daily existence with a simulacrum of cinema, narrativizing and hyperbolizing existence even if out of tattered newspapers clippings. With a raccoon or two nibbling on them for good measure.