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Episode 161 - Grey Gardens (w/ Alissa Wilkinson)


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Poll: Episode 161 - Grey Gardens (w/ Alissa Wilkinson) (22 member(s) have cast votes)

Should "Grey Gardens" enter The Canon?

  1. Yes (19 votes [86.36%])

    Percentage of vote: 86.36%

  2. No (3 votes [13.64%])

    Percentage of vote: 13.64%

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#1 Dalton Maltz

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Posted 02 July 2018 - 09:53 AM

Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson joins Amy this week to discuss the 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens.” They break down the film’s more difficult moments, examining the relationship between Big Edie and Little Edie as well as the undercurrent of latent sadness. Plus, they consider the direction and vision of Albert and David Maysles, themes of capitalism and decay, and how “Grey Gardens” encapsulates the central question of documentary.

#2 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 02 July 2018 - 09:19 PM

I love how Amy said that GREY GARDENS is the kind of film that many people could disagree on what the film is ultimately about. It's certainly a film that changes for me the more I see it over the years. I've always found it to be an incredibly sad piece. One that shines a light on the kind of people we stop thinking about and forget. The film always makes me think about some of the legendary Hollywood actresses who disappeared into obscurity after retiring. The vanished from the silver screen, but can you imagine Greta Garbo or Betty Hutton going to the supermarket or tidying around the house? The Beales were never really famous on any national level, but they had their society, and they certainly hovered around noteworthy individuals. But what becomes of these people when nobody is interested in them anymore? We stop thinking about how they live but that doesn't mean that they stop living. I don't think the Beale's lives changed all that drastically as a result of the film, but it did offer them some attention that they forgot they craved. Little Edie especially just seems overjoyed that she has another human being to talk to, though one gets the sense that she might be rattling off these speeches and songs even if she were alone. I've never found the film all that exploitive, although I guess that's somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I just spent two weeks at a film festival and every documentary screening seemed to be accompanied by a debate of whether the subjects were exploited or not, and while my opinion would vary from film to film, I usually found myself at odds with the overall perception in the room. To me, GREY GARDENS gave the Beales a new life and a bit of reassurance that they mattered. A way for them to be seen. There may not be a grand overarching story in the film, but if it didn't exist, who would ever remember that these women existed? That alone makes this an easy YES for me.

#3 gloriacassidy1999

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Posted 03 July 2018 - 05:34 AM

I'm voting yes on this movie, because it is such a foundational documentary and Little Edie has transcended the film to become a cultural myth in her own right. But the truth is I hate "Grey Gardens". While I'm never offended by films and don't respond to them with moral outrage--this thing I do find morally and ethically repugnant.

I'm definitely of the belief that the filmmakers exploited Little Edie's need for attention and admiration. She thinks she's fabulous, but what the audience sees is an emotionally crippled failure trapped by a mother who makes a practice of hacking away at her daughter's ego, because she doesn't want to be left alone and needs someone to take care of her whom she can control. This is why the woman only compliments Little Edie behind her back. I really don't think the Maysles should have allowed Little Edie to lure them in and give her this disastrous starring role, despite her self-exposure's having an admittedly morbid fascination.

I see now that the movie is a forerunner to Reality TV, wherein desperate people with personality disorders subject themselves to various humiliations because they want to become famous and loved, while viewers eat up their self-abnegation so as to feel superior to them. You sense "Grey Gardens" working you over at this voyeuristic level even as it
it partially slips beyond that sort of crude appeal into something approaching genuine human truth. I'll admit that much.

Maybe it feels deeper to some than it really is, because it's the documentary equivalent of fiction films like
"Sunset Boulevard," or Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie (Little Edie is like a fearsome combination of Amanda and Laura Wingfield); especially it recalls the B-movie tawdriness of "Whatever happened to Baby Jane". Those works, unlike the blurry unformulated "Grey Gardens, were melodramas made enjoyable by implausible murders and revelations, giving them a fun kitschy undertone. While their themes of ingrown narcissism and Gothic co-dependence were sickly and grotesque, you didn't have to worry all the time that you were watching real people and could relax and allow yourself to identify with the desperation and claustrophobic decay hiding right underneath the characters' delusions about themselves; you could laugh off the characters' silly Quixotic self images and fantasies. Not so with "Grey Gardens". When you watch actual women aging among the broken bric a brac of their lost dreams it's ghastly. Seeing the way they lie not only to the filmmakers, and us, but to themselves, the transparently festering hopelessness of their lives makes one's skin crawl.

This movie's sensibility isn't tragic, but pathetic. Little Edie would need to have a moment where she recognized how empty and
frustrated her life had been; how lost she presently was for us to sense tragedy in her soul--as we did with Robert Crumb's brother in the documentary "Crumb". This has nothing to do with her faded looks or whether or not she's simply an eccentric misfit fighting against the normals. It's about the fact that a human being's potential has been utterly wasted over the course of her life. That she was able to find glamor in this failure and wanted to display it to the whole world is profoundly depressing. It would pain me to no end if someone I loved were to have let themselves be shown as totally deluded, living in squalor, and that people then went on to make such self-deception over into camp heroics, as if Little Edie were a Screw Ball Grande Dame, Auntie Mame. That she herself would have enjoyed her macabre immortality makes the whole sordid production that much more unsettling an experience.

#4 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 03 July 2018 - 08:25 AM

 gloriacassidy1999, on 03 July 2018 - 05:34 AM, said:

I see now that the movie is a forerunner to Reality TV, wherein desperate people with personality disorders subject themselves to various humiliations because they want to become famous and loved, while viewers eat up their self-abnegation so as to feel superior to them. You sense "Grey Gardens" working you over at this voyeuristic level even as it
it partially slips beyond that sort of crude appeal into something approaching genuine human truth. I'll admit that much.


This is the reason I vote yes. This movie seems like the origins of modern Reality TV, especially disturbing shows like Hoarders or My 600 Pound Life. To me, the difference is that Grey Gardens makes no pretense of trying to "help" the subjects at hand; it simply presents them as they are. I find Little Edie's situation sad, but some people saw in her a kind of inspirational counter-culture figure (I don't get it, but I guess those were the times).

I wouldn't want to watch it again, but it seems like everyone should see this once, if only to understand where this kind of reality filmmaking came from. Worthy of a Canon spot.

#5 Scottcarberry

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Posted 03 July 2018 - 06:04 PM

I’m a strong yes on Grey Gardens. I had read about this film for years but never watched it until 2003. It was always on the Staff Picks shelf of Video Americain on St. Paul street here in Baltimore and for some reason the dvd cover always kinda made me think it wouldn’t hook me. I was wrong! I get how stylistically, you could find fault with how the Maysles executed this documentary and if it was made today it would probably be very different. I mean, nowadays, it seems all docs have animated scenes in them.
The Edies are fascinating and it’s impossible to turn away from the screen. It resonates with so many people and has been so influential that it’s inspired the HBO bio pic, which is great, by the way, Amy, a musical and a Documentary Now spoof! A Documentary with that kind of reach is reason enough for inclusion in the Canon.

#6 bleary

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Posted 04 July 2018 - 02:57 PM

I'm glad this episode finally prompted me to watch Grey Gardens, which had been on my watchlist for some time. And it's an easy yes from me, based on the influence this film has had on other documentarians, and the reasonable influence on pop culture as a whole.

Beyond that, the questions it raises about objectivity in documentary filmmaking and exploitation of subjects is really interesting. Can you exploit someone who wants all the attention that such an exploitation would entail? If Little Edie knew the joke was on her and didn't care, is the joke really on her?

And then of course, there's the levels of emotional abuse between these two women that makes this such a sad, and yet fascinating story. If the shot of the mirror does represent the camera turning away from discomfort, I can certainly understand that impulse.

Canon-worthy all around for a number of reasons.

#7 Susan*

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Posted 04 July 2018 - 09:12 PM

It's an easy yes because it's a documentary you have to see if you are into documentaries.

I'm a huge fan of documentaries, but I don't like Grey Gardens. I sought it out for a while before I could find it and felt let down.

I enjoyed the podcast much more than I thought I would because Alissa and Amy dealt with a lot of what I don't like about the movie. It was thought provoking and made me think about why I like what I like. I'm uncomfortable with watching people who might be mentally ill being exploited even if they're happy to be exploited. (I was glad Alissa brought up Titicut Follies) I remember liking Crumb and Brother's Keeper more than Grey Gardens but it's been a while since I saw either of them.

As for the Maysles brothers, I'll take Gimme Shelter over Grey Gardens. There's not a lot to it, but it's a good time capsule movie. Among other things, when I think of the Zodiac killer, I picture Melvin Belli on the phone in Gimme Shelter. I've read a good deal about the Rolling Stones over the years and (don't know whether it's true but) I heard that the Maysleses weren't familiar with the Stones and couldn't tell them apart.