Monday, 29 December 2008

Staunch Women

The best thing about the internet is that it doesn't take you where you want to go.  Whatever you're doing, whatever you want, it wants to guide you someplace else.  Whether being sidetracked by the mind-bending lateral thinking of a Google topic search, or being assured by Facebook that you that you Might Know Some People You Actually Don't, the internet is awash with happenstance guilty pleasures and the lost hours they leave in their wake.  So, beset with insomnia and finding myself somewhere between a waking nightmare and total brain-freeze, I washed up on the shores of Grey Gardens.  I don't know what I typed into Google to get there, or how I found myself watching it, but I soon realised it was a place I was always meant to find.

If Grey Gardens feels like a place I'd already visited, then perhaps that is subliminal memories of an ill-advised jaunt to Fire Island off-season about ten years ago.  Few things compare to the bleakness of an empty holiday resort, and thinking back, the windswept peninsulas and artlessly unfurnished spaces we shivered through for three days before leaving in defeat aren't a million miles away from Little Edie's world.

For the uninitiated, Grey Gardens is an early fly-on-the-wall documentary, charting the decline of Edith Bouvier – cousin of Jackie Kennedy – and her daughter, also called Edie.  By the mid-70s, the pair had fallen from high society to dire poverty, living out their days as reclusive grand dames in a decaying Long Island beach house, surrounded by faded dreams of showbiz and mangy cats. And there they argue, make up, argue, make up... all whilst singing a medley of vaudeville songs in quavering tones. It's as potent a metaphor for faded glory as one is ever likely to come across.

Yet, in spite of the squalor and hopelessness of their circumstances, the Bouviers possess a curious quiet dignity.  Amidst the self-delusion, regret and recrimination, one gets a sense of two people who are genuinely proud of their own eccentricity, and in spite of their protestations, the Edies are utterly co-dependent. For all their amusing asides, it's a quietly moving love story.
To the viewer, Grey Gardens itself seems like a place which lingers in the common consciousness – that strange old house every town seems to have tucked away somewhere, where the windows are broken and the people don't seem quite right. Here the voyeur gets a privileged peep behind the closed doors, welcomed as a guest into a forbidden kingdom. And, dare I say it, for a moment, it's a world that's almost persuasive.

As easy as it is to find a campy glee in Little Edie's squawking ruminations, there's a heartfelt weariness to her words that haunts the viewer long after their smiles fade. Is it a cautionary tale about idle privilege, or a stark reminder of how heavily a desire to cling to memory can weigh on the future? As Little Edie says: "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present – know what I mean?"

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