Grey Gardens Film Notes

Despite the current ubiquity of tabloid and reality-based television, if you’re viewing Grey Gardens for the first time, you really haven’t seen anything quite like it. Even if you’re familiar with the Maysles Brothers’ other “direct cinema” (cinema verite) documentaries, arguably none of their subjects are as memorably eccentric as 79 year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her fiftysomething daughter, Edie.

Otherwise known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie”, they were, respectively, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Big Edie was once a talented soprano vocalist whose husband left her decades before. Little Edie was once a New York socialite and aspiring actress/model whom, never married, eventually returned home to care for her aging mother (or is that the other way around?). In the early 1970s, the Long Island town of East Hampton threatened to evict the Beales from their dilapidated, squalor-infested 28-room mansion (its name gives the film its title), where they lived as virtual shut-ins with many cats and a few stray raccoons. Their story caught the attention of Albert and David Maysles, and the Beales gave them permission to film them.

The Maysles then whittled down over fifty hours of footage of Big and Little Edie into a 94-minute feature. Grey Gardens is a creepily fascinating, weirdly entertaining and oddly poignant look at two women gleefully out of step of the high society they once thrived in. Big Edie is generally a beatific but blunt old soul, unfazed at the Maysles filming her aged figure in a revealing sun dress and unforgettable when singing marvelously to a recording of the song “Tea For Two”. Little Edie, on the other hand, is a playful, brash, self-described STAUNCH character with an inimitable accent, creative fashion sense and a feverish desire to leave Grey Gardens and return to her former charmed life. Big and Little Edie spend much of the film reminiscing about the past, and even more time quarrelling with each other. Throughout, the Maysles’ camera often wanders over to vintage portraits and photographs of Beales found in scrapbooks or hanging on walls, all of them bittersweet reminders of another time.

The film stirred up a fair amount of controversy when it was first released in 1976. Many critics thought it pushed the envelope too far, deeming it an exploitative freak show. Albert Maysles denied such charges, stating, “"I like to describe the goal of `direct cinema' as life as it is -- no better, no worse. For this kind of filmmaking, the biggest challenge is getting access. With Grey Gardens, we had it from the beginning. They trusted us, we trusted them. It's something that my brother David and I learned growing up, to be accepting of all kinds of people.” In 1998, a world less daunted by such intimacy (not to mention voyeurism), courtesy of The Real World and Jerry Springer, gave the film’s theatrical re-release a much warmer reception, and in 2001, it received a lush DVD release as part of the Criterion Collection.

Sadly, Big Edie passed away one year after the film’s initial release. It was widely rumored that, while on her deathbed, she told her daughter that she had nothing more to say because everything she wanted to tell the world was said in the film. Little Edie took advantage of her newly acquired fame. She soon left Grey Gardens and eventually ended up living in Florida, but not before briefly appearing in New York City in a one-woman cabaret show (needless to say, critics liked it less than the film). Over the years, the Beales have blossomed into camp cult icons. They’ve inspired an off-off Broadway play (Clear/Cut Catastrophe, which mixed their lives in with Chekhov's Three Sisters!), a song by Rufus Wainwright (from his 2001 album Poses), and, most audaciously, an Italian Vogue fashion shoot by Steven Meisel (photographer of Madonna’s Sex) which paid tribute to Little Edie’s distinctive, scarf-heavy “costumes”. Little Edie passed away in January 2002, somewhere between the age of 84 and 86.


Lawless Heart (and a little hardcore)

It’s been nearly a week since I saw “Lawless Heart”, a magnificent, intelligent British film made in 2001 that’s just making its way around the art house circuit in the States. Directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter were previously responsible for a gay flick called “Boyfriends” that I’d never heard of. I wouldn’t go so far to call “Lawless Heart” a gay film (even though one of its central characters is); I’d rather call it a people film, specifically people left behind by the accidental drowning death of Stuart, a restaurateur in a small coastal town near the Isle of Man. The film goes through the week following Stuart’s death three times, each time focusing on a different man. First up is his brother-in-law Dan (the terrifically sour Bill Nighy), a weary, middle-aged farmer disillusioned in every way. The second man, Nick (Tom Hollander), is Stuart’s younger lover. He’s at a shambles as what to do with his life hopes Dan and his wife (Stuart’s brother) will give him the money Stuart left behind (Stuart did not, alas, leave behind a will.) The third man, Tim (Douglas Henshall), is a distant cousin to Stuart who left town years ago. Rambling, transient, and a little irresponsible, Tim attempts to make peace with his parents, and also starts dating a woman, Leah (Josephine Butler) who has serious ties with his adopted brother David (Stuart Laing), who works for Dan and his family.

The structure sounds like a shrewd gimmick, but it’s neither yet another tired variation on “Rashomon” nor a tribute to “Run Lola Run”. Instead, while each section follows the same period of time, and a few of the same scenes appear in multiple sections, each section reveals a little more about characters and plot than the previous one. For instance, in Dan’s section, he has a tryst with a young woman he’s picked up who mistakes him for a cabdriver, but we don’t find out any more about her until Tim’s section. Likewise, a gaudy yellow-and orange scarf first shows up as a present in Dan’s section, then as an article of clothing mysterious worn by Tim in Nick’s section, and finally, its real origin and significance is brought to light in Tim’s section. Such a device could come off as arch or labored, but here, it’s often ingenious--subtly, unexpectedly, and almost magically making itself known. As details and revelations accumulate, they form a rich, complete portrait of an intensely specific community following one of its inhabitant’s deaths.

As you would expect with this type of construction, each part of the triptych is more effective than the last, although Nick’s section is remarkably moving, thanks in part to Hollander’s beautifully realized turn as what is essentially a widow, even if others like Dan have difficulty understanding the complexity of the relationship Nick had with Stuart. Sukie Smith is also outstanding as Charlie, an impulsive, energetic but borderline exasperating woman who, through various twists of fate, becomes a strange but believable figure in Nick’s life. Some great films flamboyantly dazzle you with their skill and style, like “Beau Travail” or “Waking Life”. Others, like this one, are more unassuming and understated, their invention and superb dramatization and reflection of the human spirit gradually sinking in. “Lawless Heart” is a quiet, utterly compelling achievement.


Last week, while listening to that Ryo Okumoto record, I complained about how much I despise prog rock. Now, I’m listening to the hardcore, sub-Black Flag quartet Leviathan, and I’m actually longing for Okumoto’s masturbatory keyboard solos and gospel chant of “CHECK-POINT CHARLIE, GIVE IT ALL UP TODAY!” Even though I’ve never had as much use for Henry Rollins as a musician (apart from Black Flag’s uproarious “TV Party”, which gives a shout-out to the Jack Klugman show “Quincy”), he gets by on a humor and a charming personality (even if it’s not always prevalent in his music). Leviathan, on the other hand, are one-note, by the numbers grindcore slugs, and at 27 minutes, their EP is not brief enough. It’s a record where the only unique, sit-up-and-pay-attention touch is a lone, weird stretch of Peggy Lee “Fever” style bass on one song.


The Joy and Pain of Music Criticism… and Some Recently Viewed Films

Boy, do I hate prog rock. Especially wanky, cheesy synthesizer infested prog rock with over-zealous sensitive growling guy vocalists and eighteen-minute songs that go too many places, all of them crashing dead ends. I mention this because I’m listening to Ryo Okumoto’s Coming Through, one of the CDs I have to review for Splendid! I got my box of 15 CDs in the mail two weeks ago; I’ve already written about six of them, and have listened to 11. The music is of every description and stripe, both in terms of genre and quality. In the first two weeks, I wrote about the following…

Jerry Fels, a clever DIY guy, possibly Jonathan Richman’s long lost child. He sings engagingly short and goofy songs and is charmingly self-deprecating; his own label is lovingly called “Nobody’s Favorite Records”.

Aaron English, a Puget Sound-based pianist who is undeniably talented and inventive, although he sounds a little too much like Sting for his own good. His voice ain’t as good as Sting’s either, but I love the track that closes out his CD, a fun novelty number called “Animals Like Us” that should be in the running for this decade’s “Down Under”.

Soulthieves, a bloozy, not very soulful Colorado quintet without a hint of originality to them. They have both eyes on commercial radio; too bad they can’t write a single decent lyric (and even the instrumental, “Sugar” has layers of chatter, proving that they just don’t know when or how to shut up). The dorky voice echoing the title of “Dreamchaser” is excruciatingly lame. This is the CD that made me want to yell out, “Mommy, make the bad men stop!” every time I tried to get through it.

Arab Strap, a band I’ve always been curious about since Belle and Sebastian name-checked them in one of their album titles. Very different from B and S, though, particularly in vocalist Aidan Moffat’s tunelessness. This took a couple of listens to sink in, and I’m glad I stuck with it, as it (so far, too early in the game) rivals The White Stripes “Elephant” as my favorite of the year.

Godboxer, a Boston power pop quartet. Their debut EP is nothing but seven catchy tunes gleaming with hooks and lots of crunching, sighing guitars. The already classic-sounding “Only A Broken Heart” is favorably comparable to Mary Lou Lord’s great “Lights Are Changing”.

The Electromagnetic, a boy-girl quartet who sound mostly like a lesser Dandy Warhols, but “Love You Into Pieces” suggests they’re capable of great things.

Next week, I’ll write about Okumoto, Blue2Noise (a Yo La Tengo-esque dream pop quartet whose record is fine and gorgeous but too damn long), and The Battle of Lake Erie, a band I know little about except they sound similar to Blue2Noise, and their five song EP was self-burned, with the tracks written on in sharpie marker. I’ve also listened Jabe (Mellencamp-like singer/songwriter gone cowpunk) and The Man From Fiery Hill (Barenaked Ladies on crack and into loud guitars and louder harmonies). Still awaiting my ears are four other CDs: a two disc compilation of ambient music amusingly titled “At Least You Can Die With a Smile on Your Face”; a seven track disc by what looks to be a Danzig-like metal band (oh, can’t wait); Trio S, an instrumental, downtown avant jazz group; and The M Word, which comes on a (physically) teeny tiny EP and features a duo consisting of guitar and trashcan.

I’ve been so busy apartment hunting… and I’m so ecstatic that I got this place in Jamaica Plain. Too bad I have another seven weeks before I can move in. As for movies, here’s what I’ve seen lately.

“Tully”, a careful, subtle, slice of life coming of age tale set in rural Nebraska. Very lucid and real, if too leisurely-paced at times. As the title character, Anson Mount is not a generic hunk, but a multifaceted figure, physically a man but not quite there yet emotionally.

“Bamboozled”, Spike Lee’s satire/parable on race and racial stereotypes, particularly the Minstrel Show, and what might happen if it were revived. It’s outrageous and nearly unbelievable at times. It’s also a hilarious tribute to “The Producers”, although what makes it a greater film is the line of Good Taste it recklessly but necessarily crosses and the implications and consequences that occur because of a controversial, but intentionally harmless act. “Do The Right Thing” and “25th Hour” have more to say about human nature, responsibility and image, but this is rich and complex in how it examines what is for Lee a love/hate relationship with White America’s perception of Black America, past and present.

“Friday Night” is Claire Denis’ latest feature, and it was almost ruined for me by the two obnoxious, chatty, possibly inebriated women sitting behind me (we should all be allowed to bring Nerf bats into the theater so we can painlessly smack someone when they won’t shut the fuck up). And, I was a little sleepy, never a good phase for Denis’ otherworldly, meditative style. But after the eerily beautiful but intermittently ridiculous vampire flick “Trouble Every Day”, this is back on par with the spectacular “Beau Travail”. Only time (and repeated viewings) will tell whether this is as special as that amazing, incredibly unique and invigorating film. It’s a seemingly simple tale about a woman who gets stuck in a citywide Paris traffic jam and hooks up with a stranger. Denis finds joy and intrigue in such mundane things as listening to a car radio or deciding whether or not to give up a dress for Goodwill (the woman is set to move in with a lover the next day). The sex scenes are like nothing I’ve ever seen before; erotic enough, and real, but extremely and effectively selective in what’s shown and how the act seems to proceed. The movie as a whole is about very ordinary things, but they come off as exotic, vivid, and illusory. I can only imagine, though, what it would have been like if Denis Levant had played the male lead.


Rosemary’s Baby Film Notes

Something about Rosemary’s Baby seems a little off from the very beginning. Perhaps it’s the delicate, innocent “la la la’s” Mia Farrow trills in the minor-key lullaby that accompanies the opening credits. Or the descending shot over The Dakota, an ornate, Gothic-designed, menacing-looking apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West side, renamed The Branford here. How about an aged Elisha Cook Jr. showing Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) their future home? And just the idea of Farrow and Cassavetes as a “young married couple” (with a 16 year age difference between them!) is enough to send chills up the spine. Although far scarier, more graphic horror films have supplanted Rosemary’s Baby since its 1968 release, it has lost little of its power to disturb, unnerve, and even elicit the occasional grin (albeit a ghoulish one).

Not long after settling into their new home, Rosemary and Guy befriend their eccentric elderly neighbors, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (the inimitable Ruth Gordon, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role). Guy takes to the Castevets much quicker than Rosemary—especially once she’s pregnant. All of a sudden, Guy is no longer a struggling actor but an unexpectedly successful one, and Rosemary is often inexplicably in excruciating pain. She’s also drawn to ravenously consuming raw liver and the special, stinky-smelling Tanis root milkshakes Minnie custom makes for her. Early on, director Roman Polanski drops enough hints for any viewer to figure out the inevitable fate of Rosemary’s unborn child, including a few bizarre but mesmeric dream sequences (...or are they really happening?) Fortunately, the film’s subtle, suspenseful pacing and paranoia is so deliberate and creepily effective that the final scene (listen for Rosemary’s immortal line about her child’s eyes) is still a shocking, unforgettable scream.

Alfred Hitchcock was initially offered a chance to direct the film, but declined and Polanski (best known at this point for the similarly disturbing Repulsion) got the job. The result was a faithful adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel. For the roles of Rosemary and Guy, Polanski originally wanted to cast Tuesday Weld and Robert Redford (who, with his all-American blond good looks, would have seemed a little less suspect to turn to the dark side than Cassavetes). Redford was busy filming Downhill Racer, and producer Robert Evans preferred Farrow to Weld. A perfectly cast Farrow, surprisingly, did not receive an Oscar nomination. She was, however, served divorce papers on the set by her then-husband Frank Sinatra, who probably did not care much for the radical Vidal Sassoon haircut she received midway through the film. Throughout, be sure to look for appearances by Polanski’s then-wife Sharon Tate (unbilled as one of Rosemary’s friends at a party), Charles Grodin (in his first film role), Ralph Bellamy (as Rosemary’s sketchy obstetrician, a friend of the Castevets), and Tony Curtis (in an over-the-phone vocal cameo).

Rosemary’s Baby was a massive hit, establishing Polanski in America and re-establishing Farrow (then best known for her role on the TV series “Peyton Place”) as a movie icon. In addition to Gordon, the film only received one other Oscar nomination (for Best Adapted Screenplay, which it lost to The Lion In Winter.) Curiously, a string of eerie coincidences soon followed. In 1969, eight-months-pregnant Tate was brutally murdered by Charles Manson and his hippie, Satan-worshipping “family” cult, who were supposedly influenced by “hidden messages” imbedded in The Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter”. In 1968, Farrow was one of The Beatles’ companions on their famous excursion to India. Twelve years later, former Beatle John Lennon was assassinated outside his apartment building, which was, um, The Dakota. Additionally, the film’s composer, Krzysztof Komeda, died of “curious circumstances” (head injuries acquired during a drinking binge) not long after the film’s release. One also must not forget Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby, a negligible sequel made for television in 1976. It starred Patty Duke (!) as Rosemary and brought back only Gordon from the original cast.