"Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring," sighs Edie Beale towards the end of Grey Gardens. "I mean for too long a time."
By the time she utters this, Ms. Beale has made so many pronouncements, most of them of a completely equal lack of portent, that I'm surprised I notice this one. But the animals, yes -- something about the animals. All I can tell her, and I do, continuing an unwitting policy of talking at the TV screen that I began during my fourth viewing of the film -- all I can tell her is, "Edie honey, they haven't started to bore me." It amazes me, sort of, that they haven't, but they haven't.
I have now watched Grey Gardens four times. I'd seen it when it first came out in the mid-70s when I was a 20-something ultra-sophisticate (I was so sophisticated back then! Seems like I've regressed in sophistication every year since, to the point where now I feel about five naïve years old) -- feeling jaded in the relatively fresh wake (for me) of Fellini, Godard, and Warhol (Paul Morrissey) flicks, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a general pot-saturated anything-goes gestalt that made One Think One Had Seen and Done It All. All I remember of the film from that time (a vagueness surely partly the product of having been, like everyone else who saw it with me, stoned) was that Edie and her mom were a campy holiday, and who'd-a-thunk their cousin Mrs. (you had to remember not to call her Kennedy) Onassis would have had anything to do with them. I remember the news clips about Jackie saving the Hamptons house from being condemned, and my mother tut-tutting over the scandal of it.
These were the days when Liz Smith was reporting on parties at The Anvil (Avis to the Hertz of The Mineshaft) in her gossip column and coke spoons floated down from the ceiling at Studio 54 to hit Liza, Marisa and Truman on their heads. There were something like twelve gay bathhouses in New York City -- and one straight one. I, hip thang that I was, therefore did not tut-tut at the Beales. (I don't think I knew how to tut-tut.) They induced in me one of my insouciant ironic 20-something aren't-they-a-hoot hmmphs. In fact, that's what it all was -- the "scandal," the movie, the time: a hoot. Grey Gardens fit perfectly into the mid-70s version of po-mo. Ya hadda love Edie, maybe, but you forgot about her the morning after. Or I did.
The prospect of seeing the film again after nearly thirty years was not alluring. Hearing from an acquaintance that she'd recently died -- a publicist who had known Edie on and off since the '70s and emailed me with the idea of maybe doing a book about her -- left me surprised to hear that Edie hadn't died already. Edie Beale was no Ruth Draper (fantastically witty lady from ancient times who did incredible monologues) or Tallulah B: I mean, it was the Maysle brothers who'd managed somehow to bring her the little glimmer of fame she'd enjoyed -- not (I thought) any specially intrinsic compelling interest in the loopy lady herself. (Who'd heard of her since the '70s?) And my vague memory of the Maysle brothers' arty camera angles and bleak cinema verite (all those house eaves, close-ups of Big Edie's decaying splay of breast tissue, little Edie's wrapped bald head and badly made-up face, hungry cats and dirty tin cans) would, I thought, now surely seem dated and strained. So I sighed when I shoved in the VHS GG tape to watch it again.
And then proceeded to spend whatever time the thing took to play gaping at the screen, hands limp and dangling between my knees.
"Oh, it's a sea of leaves. If you lose something you can't find it again. It drops to the bottom
The thing was an amazing slow psychic train wreck that never quite entirely wrecked. A surreal sleight-of-hand turning nothing into -- well, visual nothing. It spooked me. Edie's lunatic confidences & scarves & flesh & animals & old eerie debutante photographs all seemed like broken shards of a psyche gaily tossing itself bit by bit into psychosis. I looked for something, anything to guide, ground me. Some sane Dorothy in Oz, someone to reassure me I wouldn't lose my own mind if I spent too much time with these people. But there was no one reliable enough for that. Big Mama Edie sometimes helped out a bit (kind of like the Red Queen when for a brief moment here or there she says something congruent to Alice and seduces her, falsely, into thinking she's not in hell) -- by contrast to the imploding people and house surrounding her she seemed to offer an iota or two of clear-eyed commentary -- but basically it was a coupla nut jobs flopping around and breaking down happily in front of us. My dangling palms began to sweat. "When am I gonna get out of here?" Edie asked in one of her many frazzled moments. I wondered the same thing.
It wasn't so much that these ladies needed help -- I was beginning to feel like I did. Blurry memories of the few years I'd spent at shrink school came back -- my psychoanalytic institute's collective assertion that you had to be real wary working with schizophrenics because they were very canny people and after a while, if you weren't careful with your counter-transference, they might suck you into ending up as cracked as they were. I remembered Freud's "economic" theory of the mind -- his idea of a "preconscious" gatekeeper keeping the crazy lunatics in the asylum of the Unconscious at bay on the left, letting in only those lunatics that the better-behaved Conscious city of The (comparatively) Sane wanted him to let in and could accommodate on the right. The Maysles were clearly the gate-keepers -- that single deadpan reflection of them with their handheld video equipment in a Grey Garden mirror certainly revealed them at their gate-keeping work. Only what sides of the gate were we, they and the two Edies on? The asylum's fumes had leaked out all over the place: id was seeping in like immanent mildew; the Bastille had long been stormed. I wondered (as my hair prickled while little Edie conspiratorially whispered: "What I felt was in the cards, the Marble Faun moving in -- he just gave us a washing machine -- that cements the deal -- I can't spend the rest of my life washing clothes -- I'm pulverized by this latest thing") what heavy medication all these schizoid symptoms, looked up in the DSM4, might have indicated. (Arrgh!) Sodium Pentathol maybe, or Haldol? (Shrinks, help me!)
My second time at Grey Gardens, in other words, freaked the effing hiccups out of me.
"Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono & we had quite a fight
Then, not long after, I saw it a third time. My courage and determination to do so somehow revived. Maybe I was just in a better mood. I'd eaten something good for dinner, I was relaxed, I was more willing to watch the Edies play without anticipating wanting to tie several of little Edie's scarves around their alternately fluty and shrieking throats. So I watched it again, and it was as if I'd never seen it before. Instead of a movie about nothing, it seemed to be a movie about everything. The lines (which for some reason I just hadn't noticed, much less savored, before) I now found myself compulsively scribbling down on scrap paper. Everything that popped out of their mouths seemed symbolically rich. The movie -- which had formerly seemed so bleak, unpeopled and barren -- now featured a cast of thousands. The cats were like a Greek chorus on a night off -- Big Mama Edie's breasts and straw hats were like separate characters in a play of their own. I hooted for real now, and it didn't take being stoned to feel delight: "Do you think my costume looked all right to Brooks? I think he was a little amazed."
I was more than a little amazed. The Marble Faun, for instance -- what a wonderfully wackily apt metaphor, that precious Hawthorne story about a beautiful naïve Italian boy, as sensual as the Praxiteles statue after which he was named, falling like Adam into sin: lunky handyboy Jerry as the Praxitelean stand-in, chosen for the part as if Edie were Blanche DuBois, determined to see romance in the squalid. This was source material for Tennessee Williams. The birthday party was out of Dickens. The faded portraits of the Beale women captured an almost Jamesian beauty: there was drama and mystery here (how did then become now?), along with the comedy (how did then become now?). "She likes everything without girdles," Edie confides about her mother -- equally descriptive of the whole Maysle/Beale enterprise.
Sure, the ladies -- especially "good little daughter" Edie -- ladled on labile emotions right out of some abnormal psychology text, but it all seemed to flow with real purpose from beginning to end -- an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza more gratifying than Moulin Rouge. "I have to think these things up," Edie tells us about her sweater skirt outfits and brightly swathed skull -- a bozo bravado that the Maysles simply, brilliantly allowed to erupt out of her, up and down stairs, in and out of bed, back and forth between the ocean and the beach. (The tears welling up in Mama Edith's eyes as she listens to Norman Vincent Peale on their little robin's egg blue radio prod his audience to look into a mirror and ask themselves "Who am I?") And Edie swam so well.
In other words, I liked it. It was growing on me. Unsettling thoughts of schizophrenia no longer plagued me. The last frames -- Edie dancing in filmy black -- seemed like a brave vindication of all slightly off-kilter women. Zelda Fitzgerald would have understood -- and joined in the dance.
"Who's been dropping books around here is what I want to know."
Then I watched it a fourth time.
The context now was, it was early morning and I'd drunk a lot of coffee. I mean a lot. I'd had three deadlines to meet (the happiest of which was writing this piece), and I guess I hoped the caffeine would goose me into overdrive: prod me into the quick progress and completion of my appointed tasks. What the coffee goosed me into, however (and repeatedly), was the bathroom. I wanted one last taste of Edie before I had to return the tape to my local library -- one day more and it would be overdue -- and this was the only time I had to lap said taste up. So, en route back and forth to the toilet to pee, the Edies performed their lives for me again. Which meant I heard them from afar (falling piss added a nice little plashy soundtrack) as much as watched them on the screen when I returned to my bedroom.
It was the coziest experience. Big Mama's voice calling from her bed (or was it mine?), squealing for her daughter (while Edie mused in her "decorated" room, attempting to affix that silver mask to the painted plaster, "I can't get the thumb tack in the wall -- I've got the saddest life") seemed to be squealing for me, too. I sat back down on my bed and rejoined them at now familiar times -- seeming to walk in and out of the same rooms they entered and exited, all of us following our easy whims and urgencies, confiding to each other as we glided by. I was part of the Beale family! "We come like water and we go like wind," Edie recited from what she'd once lettered onto the wall of that private little room -- there was a real but gentle poignancy now to her off-hand little mots. Funny sweet nothings you half-listen to from a dear eccentric friend: "I want to hang the bird cage, but I haven't gotten to that." (Yes, it's hard to get to everything you want to do, Edie. We know what that's like.) Overhearing Mama Edith at her birthday party -- talking graciously on the phone, praising her "beautiful" cake -- ah, there's nothing to be afraid of in this house. Just have to go with the loopy flow.
"Let the kitties in. Give them luncheon."
"Are you absolutely crazy? There isn't anything I can't do," Edie says before she launches into an American-flagged marching dance to the strains of a Virginia Military Institute Band record. Suddenly I want to believe her. And I think her audience of animals already does -- that warm-blooded Greek chorus lolling about in the wings, waiting for a cue. The raccoon scaling the wall back to the attic with a slice of Wonder Bread, neatly eaten out from the center, so that only an empty square frame of crust dangles from its meticulous little mouth. The single sparrow the Maysles' camera focuses on at the very top of one of Grey Garden's highest peaks. The cats, sleeping or shitting or pleading wide-eyed for luncheon. Liver pate and cat food: makes me wonder, how different is what sustains you, Mme & Mademoiselle Beale, from what sustains your cats -- and us?
Life may turn out not to be so bad in the lunatic asylum.
Of course, I may think differently when I see Grey Gardens for the fifth time.
© 2007 Guy Kettelhack and Nightcharm, Inc. All rights reserved
All screencaps within text by David K.
Graphic design © 2007 Nightcharm, Inc. All Rights Reserved.