TV

Grey Gardens

The new Grey Gardens is safe, providing a dash of self-reflexivity, but wasting more opportunities than it takes.


Grey Gardens

Airtime: Various
Cast: Jessica Lange, Drew Barrymore, Malcolm Gets, Daniel Baldwin, Ken Howard, Jeanne Tripplehorn
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: HBO
US release date: 2009-04-18
Website
Trailer
Amazon

The Beales of Grey Gardens have been the focus of creative interpretation for years. First the documentary, then another documentary, followed by a musical, a documentary about the musical, a book, and now -- the HBO dramatization. Maybe the sitcom is to follow. It's not hard to understand why so many artists have been entranced by the Beales and their tumbledown aristocratic manor. But it is perhaps time -- particularly given the mediocrity of HBO's Grey Gardens -- that a halt be called.

In 1976, David and Albert Maysles released Grey Gardens, a documentary about an eccentric mother and daughter, both named Edie Bouvier, offshoots of the sprawling Kennedy clan. By the time the filmmaking brothers caught up with them, Big Edie and Little Edie (as they termed each other) had lived for decades in the crumbling edifice of Grey Gardens, a once-grand home in the East Hamptons that had long since become a squalid den where raccoons rooted about in the garbage and trees grew through the rotting walls. The Edies jabbered and bickered like any co-dependent parent and offspring, spinning webs of grandeur around their shabby reality, providing tantalizing hints of their country-club pasts. They lived off corn on the cob and ice cream while playing records and settling decades-old scores with each other.

The Maysles' Grey Gardens attracted a cult following, particularly for the Edies' proto-drag queen antics. So it made perfect sense that in 2006 the story became a Broadway musical. Featuring a pair of actresses (Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson) whose grasp of verisimilitude was borderline eerie, the musical opened up a whole new world for the Beales. It limned the glam circumstances of their 1930s' existence, when Little Edie was still a debutante and Big Edie just another society grand dame who liked a little too much to hear the sound of her own voice singing at parties. It knew exactly when to play the Beales' eccentricities for humor and when to show them as brave manifestations of individuality in a world that leaves women like them few choices. By giving real song and spectacle to the Beales (both of whom harbored unrealized dreams of performing), the musical provided them a posthumous sort of dignity.

Michael Sucsy's non-musical dramatization charts a tentative path between the Mayles' straight-on, no-judgment take and the anything-goes extrapolation of the musical. It's safe, exploring a couple new avenues and providing a dash of self-reflexivity, but wasting more opportunities than it takes.

Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore turn in perfectly capable performances as Big and Little Edie, locating both the charm and the bitterness beneath the bluster, but taking few chances. The supporting cast is even less illuminating. With the exception of Jeanne Tripplehorn's believably regal Jackie O -- whose one scene, after the early-'70s press storm about the squalor of Grey Gardens brought some embarrassment to the Kennedys, is one of the film's highlights -- they all fade into the background. In a story calling out for at least a dash of excess, too often the filmmakers opt for taste and reserve.

The script's framing device is at least appropriate, starting and closing with the Beales watching the rough cut of the Maysles' film. Whereas the documentary occasionally allows viewers to forget that these women are, eccentric or not, always performing, here their yen for self-creation and -dramatization becomes incessantly explicit. The Maysles tend to seem an excuse for easy reaction shots (cut to David [Justin Louis] and Albert [Arye Gross] grinning as Little Edie shows off one of her fashion-forward outfits), but they serve as a good reminder not to take everything the women do at face value. Their house might look like something the Addams Family would appreciate and that p‰tŽ might be cat food, but the scenes set during the Beales' latter-day nadir don't look down on them.

The plentiful flashbacks to 1936 and afterward, when Big Edie's marriage is on the verge of collapse and Little Edie is turning from a beautiful girl with a flair for the dramatic into a problem daughter who can't get a husband, also manage not to condescend. What the film doesn't capture is a larger sense of their lives. We still see the Edies at essentially only two stages in their lives. Each has a man who disappoints her, Big Edie her Gould (Malcolm Gets), the gay pianist who finally can't handle being her substitute husband, and Little Edie her married boyfriend, who ends their affair in a particularly insensitive manner. After that, we are only provided the tiniest glimpses of those long decades in Grey Gardens, with the once-regal mother and daughter living off a puny allowance while the house falls to ruin about them.

This Grey Gardens deserves credit for not turning the Beales' story into a wax museum tableau. But it doesn't breathe life into it either. This isn't to say the film shouldn't have been made, but it never makes a strong case for its necessity.

5
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image