'Grey Gardens: An Isolated Life' by Olivia Tabai
Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens is almost like if Sliding Doors was a horror movie. The film follows the mundane and claustrophobic lives of mother and daughter duo Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. The Beales are ex-members of New York high society and are also related to Jackie Kennedy, leaving the high life behind and instead living alone together in East Hampton. However, their home has none of the trappings of a grand house in the Hamptons. Instead it is all crumbling façade and dust-filled rooms which burst at the seams with clutter. The house has almost become an Egyptian tomb, with the walls slowly closing in on the Beales as they lounge in bed surrounded by everything they’ve ever owned. Little Edie shows the camera old images of herself and her mother from their glory days, as the viewer struggles to reconcile these two-dimensional images with the women the directors present us with.
Little Edie repeatedly speaks to the camera about how she can no longer remain trapped in this house with her mother, a familiar feeling to those stuck in lockdown with their families. She speaks wistfully about returning to New York City, of the billionaires whose proposals she rejected, as well as her former modelling experiences. Yet, we also see her as she lives now, tossing dog food and loaves of bread onto the floor to feed the raccoons who roam her attic. It leaves us questioning how a life can spiral so far out of control, to the point where there is no more hope to hold onto, only the memory of hope, channeled through haunting old portraits or letters.
There is an undercurrent of tension throughout the whole film, with both Edies calling for each other from opposite sides of the house, yet also singing over or ignoring the other when they find themselves in the same room. It is an overwhelming sensation that now more than ever audiences can relate to. The film details the mundanity of sitting and reading a book for hours, putting an old record on, eating ice cream straight from the tub, or sorting through long-forgotten possessions. These quiet moments have all the beats and hallmarks of the quarantine routine — bored people finding small ways to while away the hours, waiting tirelessly for something more.
Yet Grey Gardens runs deeper than our temporary isolation. Little Edie is free to go on a day trip, or see friends, and yet she remains unconsciously tethered to the house, also dealing with some form of mental illness, as is her mother, that the film’s seemingly objective lens does little to address. The younger Beale alludes early on to being financially dependent on Big Edie, having never shown any interest in marrying or embarking on a career. Instead, she feeds her ageing mother, listens to her grating singing, and rants about how suffocated she feels. There is one discussion between the Beales where Little Edie asks her mother why she never forced her to marry or carve out a life for herself, with mother reminding daughter that, at the time, she didn’t want those things. It is not dissimilar to the now infamous argument scene in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story where Charlie cries out to Nicole “But you don’t want a voice. You just want to fucking complain about not having a voice.” The line between what upsets a person enough to change, and what they wish they cared about enough to change becomes blurred. The chasm between who you are and who you wish you were widens. It is as if Little Edie has been slowly building to an awakening that has now reached its peak, looking backwards on her life and wondering where it all went wrong.
This is the most terrifying aspect of the film, serving as a reminder of how easily our lives can run away from us, splintering off into pieces and landing in too many places for you to gather them all up again and continue on as before. We don’t know the moments that will change our lives irreversibly, we will never be able to see which micro-decisions we take will become the ones to create a butterfly effect that alters the course that we’ve set out for ourselves. What we are having to learn right now is that the regular ebb and flow that we expect from life is not necessarily what is owed to us. What we hope is on the horizon is just that — hope. It exists only in our minds and will never be set in stone. All we can do is have the strength to stave off the apathy that begins to creep in at the corners when things seem to be slipping away from us, remembering that even when things seem static, we can still endeavour to keep the lives we are aiming for in motion.