|Big Edie & Little Edie|
Photo by Slagheap.
For this reason, I have long had the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens in my "to be viewed" queue (along with 170+ others).
After being nudged by the bloggers at Dementia Mama Drama to see this Grey Gardens (1975), I finally moved this cult classic to the top of my queue.
The documentary shows a mother and daughter living in a decaying mansion in East Hampton, New York.
The film contains relevance for me because the 58-year-old daughter "Little Edie" serves as a caregiver for her 80-year-old mother "Big Edie." (These are their ages during filming.) Many posts I write are aimed at midlife adults who are supporting their older adult parents with age-related issues.
However, I am not sure how to respond to the documentary.
|Little Edie. Photo by Slagheap.|
I selected this film for its aging / caregiver themes. Most salient were Little Edie's complaints that she gave up relationships and a career as a singer / dancer in order to care for her mother.
In reply, the mother tells her daughter that her failures in love and fame are entirely due to Little Edie's shortcomings.
It's painful to see Little Edie express regret for her lost life and resentment towards her mother, which she does multiple times throughout the documentary. I wonder how many times this anguished dynamic plays out between other caregivers and their loved ones.
I almost decided not to review this film because, Grey Gardens has a great deal of significance for many people for other reasons not tied to midlife or late life concerns. I wondered, "Is this really an age-related film?"
Foremost this film has ties to American politics / culture. Little Edie (Edith Bouvier Beale b. 1917) is first cousin to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The public craves details about anyone connected to the Kennedy family.
Additionally, the documentary is psychologically complex because it depicts two women who live in squalid conditions physically. However, they mentally inhabit their past when they were wealthy socialites. This also makes the film interesting in terms of class issues.
The distance between their reality and their fantasies creates a mesmerizing gap.
The Beales still possess trappings from their better days. In addition to the mansion itself, they have portraits, photographs, records, furs, hats, pins, and scarves that transport them to bygone days.
My response to their coping mechanism of living in the past ranges from being fascinated, horrified, amused, sad, and enamored.
The filming technique of direct cinema attempts to remove any directorial intent. By simply setting up the camera, the subjects themselves are supposedly entirely in control of transmitting their lives directly to the viewer.
My studies of post-structuralism tell me that objectivity is an impossible task. The camera does include and exclude material. The two women in the documentary do "perform" for the camera. And the viewers do filter what they see through their own interpretive lenses.
Because I was hyperaware of these choices, I found viewing incredibly jarring. I kept experiencing whiplash as I empathized with the women, then wondered why the filmmakers asked them to appear in the film, then wondered how the public in the 1970s perceived this film, and then wondered if I was using the Beales unfairly for my own purposes.
(This clip is actually from a second documentary that used extra footage shot during the original filming but left on the cutting room floor.")
Should I judge them as mentally unsound and pathetic? I certainly shouldn't laugh at them, thus using them as a form of entertainment. Should I see them as resilient?
They did create a reality that allowed them some self-respect and dignity despite the constraints of their present (meaning the 1970s) circumstances.
Ultimately, I need to ground my response to the Beales in a place of compassion.
Since the release of this documentary, mother and daughter have both passed on--Big Edie in 1977 (two years after the documentary was filmed) and Little Edie in 2002.
Even though the documentary's subjects are dead, I can still offer them the most generous interpretation of their lives based on the scant details this film conveys. And I can practice compassion to all people, especially those whose daily realities differ vastly from mine.
Films about Aging A-L
Strong, Smart Women Wrestling with Caregiving
My JFK Memory