Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007


There is a fine line between insanity and eccentricity. There is also an even slimmer margin between desperation and dementia. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between the various mental fallacies. Some people use idiosyncrasy as a way of coping. Others allow their craziness to create endearing individualistic personas. After you factor in such adjunct issues as wealth, health, status, and situation, it becomes clear that even the nuttiest of individuals can avoid the stigma of psychosis by merely staying locked in their own insular place. It’s what protected the Beales for almost 50 years.


As relatives of the rich and famous, themselves both minor celebrities in their own singular right, the mother/daughter combo lived a reclusive, bubble-like existence in a tumbledown manor in the swankiest part of the Hamptons. With the standard domestic amenities always in question (they lived, for a time, without running water) and an evershifting menagerie of animals invading their space (cats, mice, raccoons, etc.), these one-time society stalwarts are now viewed as lamentable lunatics, adrift in an unhealthy home and an even more damaging familial dynamic.


Strangely enough, their quirky escapades would have been reserved for the back pages of the New York dailies had filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles not stumbled upon their story while researching the life of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. One of the family’s aunts, a defiant older woman named Edith Bouvier Beale, had recently had her home raided by health and human services officials who were worried that the septuagenarian, along with her nearly 60-year-old daughter Edie, were living in horribly unsanitary conditions. Required to clean up their Hamptons home, the duo claimed that local politics and a desire for their property was the cause of the personal persecution. But what the Maysles discovered once they contacted the Beales was startling to say the least.


Holed up in a couple of rooms in their massive manor, cooking on hot plates and eating not much more than canned soup, ice cream, and simple salads, the pair were isolated, alone, and rebellious. Constantly bickering back and forth, sending each other mixed messages about their devotion and their disgust for one another, the Beales barely connected with the humanity outside their door. While they were aware of the events transpiring around the globe, they were too involved in their complicated companionship to care. The original owner of the estate called it Grey Gardens, a quasi-criticism on the locale’s inability to sustain vibrant life. Apparently, the name applies to the interior as well as the exterior landscape. It makes a fitting moniker for the brothers’ amazing movie.


When we first see the home, it looks haunted. Even up close, the manor is draped in a heavy layer of age and decay. Windows appear broken out, shutters hang haphazardly from cracking sills, slats missing or misaligned. On all sides, stately homes gleam in the Hamptons sun, their rich inhabitants happy to polish their palaces to within an inch of their importance. It’s opulence as reflected by real estate, status centered in a concept of curb appeal—but not for the Beales. These old-money matrons could care less about the upkeep on their estate. “Big” Edith is 75, and more than settled in her secluded life, thank you very much. Her spinster daughter, “Little” Edie, views the last few decades as mother’s maligned helper as a premature prison sentence. Housekeeping is the last thing on their mind.


As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for government interference—and some latent familial charity—the pair would be practically homeless. But lineage won’t allow these ladies to live in the lap of self-determined near-destitution. The surrounding kin—the famous Kennedy and Bouvier clans—have cash, and they make sure the Beales are well-endowed. But neither one really cares about the money. For them, life has become a comical battle of wills, a mother vs. daughter dynamic that pits hopes against help, dreams against distraction. To call the Ediths hermetical would seem overly simplistic. They live in one great big wide world—it just happens to be of their own unusual creation.


Grey Gardens reflects the status of the Beales as women, socialities and—in some ways—human beings. They are femme fatales whom life has let die, upper-crust crones who sit around half-dressed in a mansion festooned with peeling paint, rotting wood, and the feces of various animals. Their relationship is like a contest, a “who will blink first” face-off in which old wounds, new foibles, and lamented losses pile up as potential ammunition. For Big Edie, old age has robbed her of the two things she built her entire personality on—her looks and her career as a singer. While still in good voice, her body has completely broken down. She can barely walk, her eyes and legs failing simultaneously. Still she fancies herself a captivating catch and flirts shamelessly with Jerry, a young handyman.


Little Edie, on the other hand, has bigger personal fish to fry. Feeling hemmed in by her mother’s constant demands and constantly threatening to move back to the big city, she understands implicitly that most of her dreams are unobtainable. Having given up any concept of a career decades before, and taken care of financially by a complex series of trusts and trade-offs, the aging beauty believes she’s still fated for fame. Dressed in bizarre designs of her own making, shawls and scarves covering her seemingly bald head, Little Edie is a fatalistic fashion plate, a woman desperate to escape but unable to find the proper route out.


Together, in front of the Maysles’ constant camera, these reckless and refined relatives square off, trading praise and poison back and forth like volleys in a country club tennis match. Little Edie will cheer her mother’s rendition of “Tea for Two,” then mimic and mock her recordings in the next catty breath. Big Edie will criticize her child’s increasing weight while wondering aloud why her stunning singing voice never eclipsed her own. They will share simple memories and melt down over comments concerning the late, lost Mr. Beale. Men are a mitigated factor in Grey Gardens, Big Edie having shunned her spouse early on in their marriage, her two sons nowhere to be seen in and around the home (we do glimpse them, as babies, in some old photos). Even Jerry, the slightly slow hippie who seems to have moved in with the ladies, is seen as a cog to be used between the fighting females.


Big Edie sees his attention as verification of her stunning sexuality. Little Edie views him as an interloper capable of stealing her antiques, precious books—and her place in Mother’s heart. Indeed, the minor interaction we witness between the Beales and the rest of the world is presented as uneasy and unreal. A birthday party for Big Edie finds the guests sitting on newspapers (the chairs are dirty and haven’t been cleaned in years) and drinking vintage wine out of Dixie Cups (the glassware having mysteriously disappeared long ago). Even the Maysles, who have become like ancillary family, face considerable limits, since they’re not allowed by Little Edie to venture into other areas of the massive, 24-room home.


From a pragmatic standpoint, it all seems so nutty. Though we slowly become aware that the implied wealth that comes with the Beale/Bouvier name is not as comforting as we assume (these women appear to be living right on the edge of abject poverty), their situation is obviously the result of a surreal self-fulfilling prophecy. By returning home without establishing her own identity, Little Edie was destined to fall under Big Edie’s demonstrative domineering. All throughout Grey Gardens, the Maysles catch her scampering about and giggling like an arrested adolescent and, in essence, that is exactly what Edie is. Isolation has stunted her social skills to the point where, while refined and well turned-out, the younger Beale sounds like a lost and troubled teen.


As she slinks around in scandalous, revealing clothes (so stylish that she actually inspired several famous fashion designers to copy her clever combinations) and bats her eyes at the camera, we see an aged youngster trapped in a wrinkling body. Big Edie is also ensnared by the past, but her feelings are very focused. She hates the fact that her marriage and child-rearing responsibilities misdirected her profession, and has apparently tried several times to jump-start her career (mostly by inviting men to live in Grey Gardens with her). For the meditative matron, fame flew away the minute she turned her back on what she really wanted. Now, with daughter Edie flaunting failure in her face on a rather consistent basis, Big Edie is bitter, a battleaxe ready to wield her own personal blade at anyone within range.


That Grey Gardens gives us all this via a non-intrusive, fly-on-the-wall perspective, says a great deal about the Beales’ desire for attention. Though they claim to hate the interference of outsiders, they are more than happy to make room for the Maysles and the genial Jerry. In fact, as natural performers, the pair is desperate for almost any audience. There is lots of singing and carrying on in this film, almost as if the filmmakers fancied they were making a musical. During uncomfortable quarrels or awkward personal insights, one of the Beales will break out into song, stifling the moment with a melodious mist. Frequently, when confronted in lies or contradictions, Little Edie will just caterwaul away, keening in a juvenile, off-key manner that makes her mother furious. It could all be part of a battle plan made up of disappointment and deflection, but one senses something consistent here.


Like a perplexing puzzle made up of heartaches and histrionics, Little Edie annoys her parent to prove the old gal’s feelings—she can’t live without the child. Similarly, Big Edie criticizes her only daughter as a way of keeping her practical and present. This is necessary since, throughout Grey Gardens, we see how easily disconnected the wayward woman can become. Perhaps the best example of an inaction film ever fashioned, neither resident of this rotting façade wants to leave. They may clamor for greener pastures or broader personal horizons, but there is something queerly comforting about their seemingly haunted home. Within its walls, a kind of truce has been forged, a peace between ladies who would rather suffer than live alone. It’s what makes Grey Gardens such a stunning documentary. It’s also what has made the Beales’ legacy live on long after they finally found their eternal peace.


Interesting enough, Grey Gardens is a fairly balanced presentation. Both Edies get their moments, and when one occupies the screen solely, the other is not far behind—either physically or spiritually. For the 2006 sequel, Albert Maysles, the remaining living member of the filmmaking brotherhood, decided to unearth as much footage as he could from the hours the pair spent in the disintegrating home. Oddly enough, it seems that Little Edie got the shortest end of the original’s editing stick. Much of the new material in The Beales of Grey Gardens centers on her, her tendency toward awkward musical moments, and those oddball sequences where she reads from a well-worn horoscope paperback and tries to make sense of her life. In an introduction to the film, Albert hints that the reason most of these scenes were excised was because they show how intertwined the brothers were in the Beales’ life.


Edie obviously fancied David, and spent untold screen time commenting on their future together. Similarly, the filmmakers didn’t like to prompt their participants, and all through the update, we hear them asking questions in hopes of spurring some interesting exchanges. This is more of a supplement than a true sequel (Grey Gardens maintains a sort of implied narrative while The Beales is more like a collection of outtakes), but anyone who believes that more of the Edies is an entertainment windfall will thoroughly enjoy this companion piece. While it lacks some of the original’s psychological insight, the Edies remain fascinating, factual entities.


It seems odd that, for two people fiction could not possibly create, mediums other than the documentary have embraced and are interpreting the baffling Beales story. An off-Broadway musical (which recently shifted to the Great White Way itself) and a full-length feature film (with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange attached) are set to keep the ladies’ story alive for future fans to discover. Yet no matter how good (or bad) these versions eventually are, nothing can compare to that first fleeting moment when we see the vine-covered Hamptons home, wood cracking as uncontrolled vegetation hides it from view. Suddenly, from out of the darkened back doorway, a decidedly older lady, her head wrapped in a telling turban, announces the situation for the day. “Mother’s complaining about something,” she winks, before flitting off like a preoccupied pixie lost in her daily designs.


As an illustration to what makes Grey Gardens so special, such a sequence seems less than auspicious. But once we learn that this is just the icing on an unusually dense and deliciously cloistered cake, the anticipation for another slice becomes unbearable. It is easy to see why, as symbols or kitschy cult icons, Big and Little Edie Beale have endured. Something about them is so timeless, so vibrant and vulnerable, that they have no choice but to enter the realm of myth. Even though it has long been sold and re-modeled to modern specification, Grey Gardens will always be a dark, desolate place. Luckily, the ladies who once lived there lit it up quite well.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Incognito
Bees + Things + Flowers

(Narada Jazz)


“Crave” [streaming]
“Deep Waters” [streaming]
“Everybody Loves the Sunshine” [streaming]
“Everyday” [streaming]
Bluey’s podcast about Bees + Things + Flowers [MP3]


 


“Over a 27-year career, London-based Mobo Award winners Incognito made stateside strides with both dreamy urban adult/Quiet Storm fare such as “Deep Waters” and “Still a Friend of Mine,” as well as jazzy horn-kissed club jams like “Everyday” and a cover of the Ronnie Laws/Side Effect classic “Always There.” Fans will be glad to know that all four of those songs can be found on their latest album, Bees + Things + Flowers—only they’ll sound nothing like the arrangements to which they’ve grown accustomed.”

 


That Bees + Things + Flowers was recorded in just six consecutive days speaks volumes for the organic flow that defined the proceedings. For the horn arrangements, Bluey chose the burnished glow of euphonium and flugelhorn over the typically punchier saxophone, trumpet and trombone configuration. Strings were added to several of the songs in one half-day session. Overall, the band gelled like never before. “Part of the reason for that,” Bluey adds jokingly, “is that the musicians love football (soccer) so much that they were doing first takes just so they could get back to the ‘tele’ and watch the World Cup! It was summer and the sun was baking down. London isn’t usually like that. The atmosphere was like a celebration—a very healing, soothing and energy-giving thing. It made us forget all the troubles of the world for awhile.”


Tagged as: incognito
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007

There seems to be a movement afoot among conservative thinkers (okay, maybe it’s just P.J. O’Rourke and economic journalist David Warsh) to rehabilitate Adam Smith (as if this were necessary), protect him from various accusations of shallow and simplistic thinking about human behavior and present him as more than a mere tool for capitalist ideologues by directing attention at his earlier work, Francis Hutcheson. Since humans are endowed with innate moral sense, we can automatically detect right from wrong instinctually—thus humankind is basically benevolent, not the malevolent brutes of Hobbesean’s scheme. How do we know good? We feel it as a quasi-Platonic form of beauty: Beauty and virtue are inherently aligned, thus one can demonstrate one’s virtuousness by becoming a connoisseur of beautiful things. The man of feeling is essentially a connoisseur of beautiful sentiments—pity, sacrifice, charity, etc.—instrumentalized to demonstrate an inner worth that justifies either his social position or his right to social mobility. The moral sense also manifests in polite behavior, which is the public, social expression of the moral sense in action—this transforms the upper class habitus into an elaborate demonstration of inner nobility and the inherent refinement of the aristocratic inner character. The commoner’s lack of understanding of morals is not so much a lack of training as a lack of innate moral sense.


Since our instinctual emotions are benevolent, the stronger we feel them (and thus the more ostentatiously we display them) the more virtuous we are. From this point of view morality is a reaction rather than a process of judgment. There is no need for a method of moral reasoning; what’s needed instead is practice in responding immediately with one’s heart in the proper histrionic way to various highly emotional events—death, the suffering of the poor, the orphaned children, women in distress, abandoned women, etc. Society life thus became a systematic pursuit of occasions to exhibit one’s moral “sensibility” as it soon became known. Sensibility was similiar to the Renaissance notion of sprezzatura, an instinctual charisma and propriety, but was more passive, with more emphasis on finely wrought feelings in response to witnessed situations. Sensibility is a matter of spectatorship and reaction—which is what relates it to modern entertainment industry, which thrives of passive spectatorship and the delectation of contrived emotional experiences for their own sake.


Hence the development of the commercial novel: Novels capitalized on the fantasy of being able to find oneself in situations that called for strong and unrestrained expression on one’s emotions and offered many opportunities to demonstrate a “feeling heart” by vicariously identifying with the fictional character’s sufferings. Weeping over a book, for a time, served as proof of one’s goodness, was seen as a kind of emotional charitableness. Novels became testing devices—if your heart didn’t respond, your moral sense might just be weak and you might not be as moral as you hoped. Of course, the converse always happened—it was all too easy (and satisfying) to let the novel provoke sympathetic tears and prove your inner worth (a process which in turn provoked much mockery from skeptics—often dramatists, essayists and reviewers). Every aspiring novelist (and readers too) learned the grammar of emotional prose, the key words and scenarios which were to trigger feelings in the reader.


What permits this whole system was the magical property of sympathy, by which we automatically relate to another person’s feelings, feel them ourselves and act accordingly.  Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments ties into the story here, because it adopts the property of sympathy (defined as an instinctive, vicarious appreciation for the observed feelings of others—the natural and irresistible human ability to put oneself in another’s shoes) as its fundamental principle. This differs from the innate moral sense in that Smith sees sympathy as a product of reasoning your way into the feelings of others through a comparison with what you yourself would feel in the same situation. And what is good is a matter of consensus—intimations of what will become “spontaneous order.” Following Hutcheson, Smith’s innovation was to attempt to fuse the Hobbesan view of man’s innate selfishness with Shaftesbury’s view of human benevolence and yield enlightened self-interest. Because we can’t help but feel what others feel, it becomes part of our selfish interest to make them feel good—Smith even opens his work with the observation that despite what may be convenient to us, our own feelings are invariably mixed up with what we perceive of others’ feelings, so essentially we have an inescapable interest in the emotional lives of our fellow men.


How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.


This creates a kind of proto-panopticon scenario: Since how we all affect each other by the kind of feelings we display, it behooves us to imagine someone is always watching us, and to act with that cool impartial observer’s likely reactions in mind.


The process of continual comparison with others, along with the assumption of a constant observer who embodies our ideal (likely modeled on the sort of person society most praises—the privileged person with all the manners of polite society) provides a rationale for what will become, in Veblen’s terms, invidious comparison, where one measures one’s own prosperity against that of peers and yields perpetual dissatisfaction—the hedonic treadmill. We compare ourselves to those above us (or now, the lifestyle celebrated in ads and entertainment) and ceaselessly strive to catch up to it, but it keeps moving beyond us. In generalMoral Sentiments supplies a guide to the psychological framewrok necessary to sustain not just a capitalist society but a consumer society; it advocates conformism and a habit of spectatorship as premises of its moral system, and tries to rationalize selfishness as reasonability. It also promotes endless striving for the approval of others on the grounds of material comparisons (once emotions are reified) as the meaning of life. It’s not too hard to see the ways these ideas have mutated and survived in our own culture.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 8, 2007


A new year – a new look. Instead of focusing a great deal of attention on several releases each week, SE&L is going to take a different approach when discussing the most recent DVD titles of 2007. Every Tuesday, we will pick a prominent disc – something we think you should be paying attention to – and then go on to highlight a few more significant selections. We’ll then discuss an offbeat offering for those unimpressed by your typical mainstream merchandise. Hopefully, this will give you a better idea on how to spend your digital dollars, and provide a more productive forum for discussing the latest home theater treats. For the first full week of January, here is the SE&L Pick:


Idiocracy


Forgive the man for being angry, but animator/filmmaker Mike Judge has a real right to be pissed. Not only did Fox foul up the release of his latest film, but they purposely buried it in a manner more befitting a Hilary Duff vehicle than a scathing social satire from the mind behind Office Space, King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead. Though critics who finally saw the film savaged its story of a military milquetoast accidentally frozen for 500 years, only to wake up in an America of incredible inbred stupidity, it is clear they missed the point entirely. Judge juggles several important ideas here – the overall notion of ‘dumbing down’ (the theory of dysgenics), the prevalence of advertising-guided cultural decisions, the failure to see the obvious forest for the specific, sports drink-oriented trees – and finds a brilliant biting way of bringing them to life. This laugh out loud diatribe may seem like more future mock than shock, but the subtext it suggests is more frightening than the notions of global warming - and Al Gore as a movie star - put together.

Other Titles of Interest


Crank


Jason Statham stars in this rollercoaster ride of an action pic, a nonstop display of modern moviemaking, carefully choreographed stunt work, and male machismo that failed to find an audience upon its initial release. DVD and the home theater experience seem the perfect places to rediscover this high energy hokum.

The Illusionist


Of the two magic movies this year, The Prestige remains the best. Neil Burger’s equally interesting take on slight of hand has a formidable cast (Paul Giamatti is magnificent as a police chief/pawn of the Austrian court) but may be too romantic for most. Still it definitely deserves credit for its period piece attention to detail.

I Trust You to Kill Me


Kiefer Sutherland takes on the most dangerous role of his entire career – as road manager for a rock band. Owner of his own indie label, the 24 actor follows Rocco DeLuca and the Burden as they trek around the world, spreading their aural anarchy to whoever will listen. The results are interesting, if not particularly enlightening.

Murder Set Pieces


How do you make a notorious homemade splatter fest acceptable to typical mainstream consumers? Carve out nearly 20 minutes of gore-laced footage and try to pawn off the results as the “hardest R” ever to hit DVD. Sadly, nothing can save this pointless neo-Nazi serial killer crap.


The Night Listener


Robin Williams is a late night talk show host who develops an indirect friendship with a teenage boy. When the child suddenly disappears, he decides to investigate and uncover what happened – or if the kid really existed in the first place. Instead of a psychological thriller, this uneventful effort is plodding and oddly predictable.


And Now for Something Completely Different


Nude on the Moon/Blaze Starr Goes Nudist


Ah, Doris Wishman – that diva of deviant cinema. Notorious for her mid-period Manhattan roughies, and the championing of female physical oddity Chesty Morgan, this main madam of exploitation got her start in nudist camp films, and this double feature provides two of her most amazingly misguided efforts. The first deals with a team of astronauts who discover that the Moon is populated by sunworshippers playing volleyball and swimming sans clothes. The second slice of skin follows famed burlesque queen Starr as she discovers the delights – and the sexy companionship – of vacationing au natural. If you’re looking for narrative logic, clear characterization, directorial flair or reasonable entertainment value, these kitschy classics will probably come up short. But if you’re interested in seeing how sex was dealt with before the boundaries of bareness were broken, or just want to see some puffy mid-60s health nuts brandishing their birthday suits, these slightly surreal epics are pure cheddar cheesiness.

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 8, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Diana Ross
I Love You

(Manhattan/EMI)
US: 16 January 2007


 


I Love You presents 14 songs personally selected for the album by Diana Ross in appreciation of their timeless, classic expressions of love and romance, including a brand new song, “I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters)”, a gentle ballad that captures the emotion of romance. The CD’s package includes stunning photos by Herb Ritts, Randee St. Nicholas and Douglas Kirkland and a letter to fans from Ms. Ross, who executive produced I Love You. The package also contains notes from the album’s co-executive producer, Marylata E. Jacob, a Grammy-nominated music supervisor and producer whose professional relationship with Ms. Ross spans 22 years, Peter Asher, who produced nine of the album’s tracks, and who has collaborated with Ms. Ross on many of her most cherished recordings, and the producer of five of the album’s tracks, Steve Tyrell, who has produced many recordings with Ms. Ross, including “Big Bad Love” with Ray Charles, and in 2005 produced her duet with Rod Stewart, “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” the lead single from Stewart’s Thanks For The Memory: The Great American Songbook I. I Love You’s deluxe edition adds a DVD with a photo gallery and an exclusive
behind-the-scenes look at the making of the new album.”—Manhattan/EMI


Behind the Scenes Video [streaming]
“I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters)” [streaming]
“More Today Than Yesterday” [streaming]
“I Want You” [streaming]


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.