Archive for August, 2010


Grey Gardens

The central drama, or mystery, of the Maysles’ stunning, haunting documentary is (1) the women’s personalities and (2) their circumstances. The one informs the other. Are this mother and daughter, formerly denizens of glamorous East Coast society, living in squalor purely for want of money, or is there a darker undercurrent that we only occasionally glimpse — a tragic flaw in their personalities, perhaps, or in society itself?

What happened after Big Edie’s divorce in the early 1950s? Little Edie tells us she returned to Grey Gardens to look after her mother, but why did she? And why did she remain for two-and-a-half decades? In other words, which of them suffered a crisis of faith? Did the mother spiral into an abyss of catatonic depression after her husband ruthlessly divorced her, so that she truly was  unable to fend for herself? We glimpse an edge of despondency about her, as though her current poor health isn’t solely a function of advanced years.

Or was it Little Edie who suffered the crisis of faith, despite her having had every abundant advantage — private school, knockout beauty, and powerful connections. She claims her father turned on her, too, when she didn’t toe the line and pursue law school. Yet at the same time she never found her way into wedlock, either, despite the beauty and connections. Was Grey Gardens, then, her capitulation — her retreat from East Coast high society and its expectations?

So the moment when they tune into Norman Vincent Peale’s (The Power of Positive Thinking) radio program is breathtakingly resonant. (Even the title of Peale’s program, “The Art of Living,” is priceless.) Peale’s sermon that day? “Think, really think… Believe, really believe… Try, really try.”

But to hell with such striving — or credulity. These women are beyond believing or trying. As mother and daughter chatter and quarrel and sing together, we’re tempted to conclude that what really hobbles both of them isn’t poverty or madness so much as a shared sense that society, given its vicious mendacity, just isn’t worth giving a shit about, much less keeping up appearances for. Not only have these women completely withdrawn from it, they’ve abandoned every sense of decorum to the point of living in ruin.

So, is this a tragedy of going under — or a perverse triumph of transcendence?