Documentary Diary: A critical analysis of the Maysles Brother’s ‘Grey Gardens’.

I’m going to explore the ways in which the Maysles Brothers used techniques synonymous with direct cinema. They produced a candid and controversial non-fiction feature film depicting the relationship between an eccentric mother and her daughter. The film’s aesthetic embraces its imperfections as a hallmark of realism. It follows direct cinema conventions with handheld camera movements and the use of only diegetic sound. The drama unfolds unscripted and without narration. The filmmakers’ faith in the spontaneous, asks nothing more from its subjects than their permission to be filmed.

Whilst working with the Drew Associates the Maysles Brothers saw fault in other modes of documentary, which strongly resembled propaganda and often mislead audiences. The Drew Associates set about revolutionising documentary film, aiming to produce more intimate and objective content. In the early 1960s when the brothers began working on their own productions, they continued to develop the principals of direct cinema.

In 1972, first lady Jacqueline Kennedys sister, Lee Radziwill (mother-in-law of Real Housewives of NY’s Carole Radziwell) approached the Maysles brothers to produce a film about her childhood. On the list of places she suggested to film was Grey Gardens, a 28-room East Hamptons mansion which was an overgrown flea ridden fortress. Although Radziwill eventually lost interest in the project the brothers found a fascination with the mansion’s residents, Edith ‘Big Edie’ Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’. The women’s fierce tenacity and complex relationship with one another captivated the filmmakers in the same way the film does with its audiences.

As the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O, the Beale’s isolated life and the increasingly decrepit state of Grey Gardens was a far cry from what they were brought up to be accustomed to. ‘Big Edie’ a former singer and ‘Little Edie’ who was a model and ‘it’ girl, were both New York socialites. Before Big Edie and her husband separated the women lived a life of luxury, attending premiers and donning the latest fashions. Little Edie’s love of clothes continued when their disposable income declined, she would creatively fashion her flamboyant outfits from towels, bed sheets and curtains. The documentary explores how two aristocrats both with beauty and talent ended up being the subject of criticism for living in such appalling conditions. The local board of health ordered the women to improve the state of the house or be evicted. Little Edie believed this was an invasion of their privacy, pushing the two women into an even more insular existence.

Despite their impoverished circumstances, the high society drop outs seem content in their decaying mansion relying only on each other, their cats and the raccoons in the attic for company. The only regular visitor was Jerry Torre, the women’s young handyman. After running away from home he was taken in by the women and became somewhat of a rival sibling for Little Edie. The presence of a man in the house served as an unpleasant reminder of the rich suitors scared away by Big Edie. Little Edie who frequently brought up the men’s marriage proposals displayed resentment for missed opportunities throughout the film.

The exposition of the film is done largely through the use of a montage of news clippings showing the coverage that ‘Grey Gardens’ was receiving and the attitude neighbours had to the women’s lifestyle. The use of montage is effective because as well as providing the mansion’s back story it places emphasis on the story being true. The Maysles brothers do little to hide their presence in the film. Whilst the headlines are being shown, their voices are heard accompanied by an image of the two men. J B. Vogels (2005) argues that this is an important part of the film as it cements the Maysles as both supporting characters within the film and its creators. This is also apparent as glimpses of the filmmakers can be seen in reflections in mirrors and when the Beales directly address or speak about the men. By showing images of the brothers with their equipment the film makes its audience acknowledge that although the film shows the real lives of its subjects, it’s presented as a manufactured product. The documentary’s self-reflexive nature makes it not only about the inhabitants of Grey Gardens but about a time when a film crew visited them. 

Direct Cinema was dependant on the new technologies coming out at the time. Sound recording equipment became smaller and more portable as did the cameras. ‘Grey Gardens’ is filmed in a fly on the wall style, conforming to the conventions of direct cinema. The handheld camera enabled Albert Maysles to move freely and capture the action quickly, although at times the shot would be shaky and lacking focus. ‘These ‘flaws’ in themselves seem to guarantee authenticity and thus became desirable.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250)  With the heavier pre-war equipment this style would not have been as achievable.

‘The beauty of a Maysles image most often arises through its startling immediacy, capturing and seizing the spontaneity of a moment….rather than freezing the image into one of overly aestheticized beauty.’ Joe McElhaney – Albert Maysles University of Illinois Press 2009.

McElhaney points out that the camera operator being there to capture the action unfolding on film is part of the attraction of this documentary. The fact the Maysles were there to record the moments at all is more important than the technical excellence of the images produced. It is the film’s visual imperfections that become a metaphor for the women’s lives which are at times off-kilter, messy and difficult to follow.

The filmmakers shot hours of footage without forming a final judgment of what the outcome of the film would be. The Maysles allowed a single camera to roll continuously whilst recording sound. This resulted in the film being largely made up of long takes, which are a common feature of direct cinema films. The creators aspire to be objective; the less they have to manipulate their footage the better. The Maysles allowed ‘Grey Gardens’ to serve as an exploration of the women’s feelings towards each other as well as their fears of men and the outside world. Edith and Edie spent a lot of time reminiscing about their past as they look through photo albums and express regret over missed opportunities. From the photographs the audience can see how the women, much like their mansion, were once beautiful but age and lack of care have caught up on them. The dissimilarity of the old photographs and the tightly framed images from the present highlight how their lives changed. Grey Gardens which in their youth was a sanctuary has become somewhat of an asylum for the women, trapping them in a lost time and in their view protecting them from the outside world.

The idea of the two women being imprisoned in Grey Gardens is repeated throughout the film. As Little Edie gives a tour of her bedroom she holds a birdcage and a poster advertising a world tour in her hands. She then goes on to explain how she would hang them next to each other on the wall. The juxtaposition shows Edie’s feelings of imprisonment and yearnings for the freedom of her youth. With the remarkable contrast between the two objects and the attention they are given in the film, it is hard to believe this moment was a coincidence. It raises questions about the reality of the film and suggests Edie is orchestrating her own narrative within the Maysles’ production. Instances of Edie’s directing can also be seen at the beginning of the film when she suggests what the brothers should capture next. 

American direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew ‘saw direct cinema as a ‘theatre without actors’.’ (MacDonald, 1996, p.250) The Maysles tried to faithfully follow this model but some could argue that with Edie’s flair for the dramatic she would often act for the camera. Edie’s acknowledgement of the camera’s presence distances the film from direct cinema norms. She makes reference to her outfit as ‘the best costume for today,’ indicating she sees each day the filmmakers are there as a performance. She gives directorial advice to the crew and shows an apparently exaggerated version of herself within her dance routines.

Direct cinema can be seen as an approach which disregards fictional elements. This would imply that everything we see on screen is the ‘truth’. However, it is through the editorial decisions that the ‘truth’ captured by the camera is given a meaningful narrative. Ultimately the final film is a presentation of the filmmakers’ interpretation of reality. ‘Given the editorial nature of the process, a documentary/non-fiction feature film can only ever represent a truth selected by…the filmmaker.’ (Young, 2002, p.14). John Grierson argued that documentaries are ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ and in ‘Grey Gardens’ examples of this can be seen. There are instances when one woman is talking and it suddenly cuts to the other’s reaction. The film was shot with one camera so the close up reaction shots of the women could not have been captured. Artistic liberties were obviously taken by the editor to choose an appropriate shot to enhance the dynamic witnessed by the single camera.

The editing techniques used contribute to the chaotic feel of the film. It is choppy and utilises jump cuts frequently. This suits the manner in which the story is told as it is highly fragmented and it challenges formulaic narrative structures by blurring time distinctions. It mimics the disharmonious lives the mother and daughter lead. It also suggests that they have both lost all concept of time. They don’t pay attention to what day of the week it is, nor the time of day. This idea is also captured by Little Edie who said ‘It’s difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.’ The women appear to have become jaded with the present and long for their lost youth.

Alongside the images, synchronous sound is played; all of which is diegetic. This is because with direct cinema, the filmmaker does not want to generate a synthetic emotional plea to the audience. Since both the women were aspiring entertainers, music is a pivotal part of the film. The Beales singing along to the records contributes to the often discordant sound of the documentary. The pair frequently squabble and talk over each other as they speak directly to the camera. The fly on the wall effect is furthered by this because in a fictional film, actors would generally wait for their cue to deliver lines. However, the way they are shown doing this suggests they are competing for the attention of the lens. This may not resonate with modern audiences as films with this kind of sound rarely give rise to commercial success. There is no narrator which is common in observational cinema films. There is a belief that interesting subjects and circumstances are enough to hold the target audience’s attention.

Jay Cocks (1976) scrutinized the film stating it was ‘an aimless act of ruptured privacy and an exploitation’. Grey Gardens did prove to be uncomfortable viewing for some. It was released at a time before reality television’s prominence, audiences were surprised and in some cases appalled by having such a detailed view into the Beale’s lives. The voyeuristic feeling the film generated in viewers may have been an effect of the fly on the wall style Grey Gardens was filmed in. However, in response to a slanderous review of the film Little Edie wrote, ‘We’re proud of it and couldn’t be more pleased. It’s us!’ she also defended Albert Maysles by saying he was a pioneer and because of this he will be criticised.

The long takes, diegetic sound, absence of narrator and the hand held camera movements create a free flowing and impossibly intimate view of the extraordinary life of two ordinary women. Albert Maysles ‘asserted that ‘the more personal [a film] is, the more it tells everybody’s story.’.’ Audiences can sympathise with the dysfunctional family dynamic and feel inspired by the women to go against the status-quo.


Millennium Point Rebrand Launch

Yesterday I attended the Millennium Point rebrand launch. It was a significant event for me because the promotional video I made for my final major project was shown in the crowded atrium of the huge building. After Simon Topman, the chairman of the Millennium Point Trust and Philip Singleton, the CEO spoke the 2-3 minute video was shown… It was well received by the guests and seeing my work on such a large screen was pretty surreal. Now that my FMP is complete I have the freedom to work on personal projects.. watch this space.

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 16.50.07Now that my FMP is complete I have the freedom to work on personal projects.. watch this space. 

Production Update..

I haven’t posted in a while because I have been preoccupied with University applications, open days and interviews as well as the BFI Film Academy WM but now that that’s all coming to an end I will be devoting my time to production and blogging. BOA TV have been very busy as of late. We have been working on a few exciting projects which are now coming close to completion.

During the half term, we went to the 2013 BVExpo in London to take a look at some of the newest software and technology. It was a great opportunity to network with industry professionals and get some advice about kit and upcoming post-production packages. We filmed snippets of our visit to the expo and will be piecing it together soon.

A lot has changed in regards to my final major project; I am no longer producing a video for BRIC-ITT due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I am working on a promotional video for BOA’s Eastside neighbour, Millenium Point. Having to totally rework my original plan was easier than expected and we had a shot list was complete within 2 days. We have also filmed the initial interview with Philip Singleton, CEO of the Millenium Point Trust.  We plan to use this interview as the audio base for our video and punctuate it with a narrative voice over. Today was the first day shooting at Millenium Point and the surrounding area of Eastside. The internal shots were far easier to capture than the external ones because of the severe weather conditions. The strong winds made it hard to control camera shake as we were using a shoulder mount and a fig rig but we took whatever shots we could to use as placeholders for the time being. Tomorrow we will correct these shots by using a tripod and keeping our fingers crossed for a brighter day with no snow. We will also try to get some of the Year Ten students to use the Science Park because we were not able to film minor members of the public due to consent issues. The project is running smoothly so far and we will turn over a 6 minute edit  as well as a shorter one for the Imagine BOA YouTube channel.

The Library of Birmingham promotional video is also in the works right now. We have just one interview left to record and a couple of pick up shots from the inside of the new building. The edit has been more challenging than usual as I have been learning to edit using Avid rather than what I usually use, Adobe Premiere Pro. It is an entirely different process but finding my way around the new software has been all the more rewarding. Tomorrow we have a meeting to show the edit so far to the client, just to make sure everything is in keeping with their vision.

These are the projects we are currently working on but we have a few lined up. For the latest updates of BOA TV’s work check out our Facebook page.

To see our productions check out the Imagine BOA channel


Inspiration: Lotte Reiniger

I was introduced to Lotte Reiniger’s work at the BFI Film Academy. Her work is all so delicate and her fairytale adaptations are truly enchanting.

German-born Lotte is a silhouette animator who took her childhood love of Chinese shadow puppetry and made it into a fruitful career. Reigner worked with her husband Carl Koch, a film historian on many of her films. He became her producer and camera operator, together they produced a huge number of animation films. Possibly the most significant of her films is Prince Achmed, a feature film she produced in her twenties, it is often credited as the first animated feature-length film. It was her first and only attempt at a full-length animated film. Short films were her forte and she spent the rest of her career focusing on short films and sequences for other people’s films.

When you look at her work, it is fragile and beautiful. She would cut all of her silhouettes without drawing them first, she would simply hold the scissors still in her right hand and use the other to manipulate paper around the blades. Sometimes the figures would be incredibly complex with up to 25-50 separate pieces joined together. Her films are 18 frames per second giving them a kitschy feel, the musical scores and voice-over narration she frequently used helped carry the story in each of her films.

Adults and children can both enjoy her works as they generate feelings of nostalgia and magic. Reiniger doesn’t get the credit she deserves for the 70 odd films she produced. This may be because many of her original negatives were lost as she fled from Germany to the UK around the time of the war, meaning most of the modern prints are copies so a lot of the fine detail has been lost.

Prozac Nation

Despite creating a great divide between its audience, viewers either love it or loathe it, Prozac Nation is one of the only films to achieve cult status without a commercial release. It is an adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s frank, no-holds-barred memoir which depicts of her struggles with depression.

The film follows a rather unlikable protagonist, Lizzie, as she makes the move to Harvard University. She is a talented young writer who has received a prestigious journalism scholarship. Her bright future is juxtaposed with images of her troubled childhood tainted by self harm and countless therapy sessions. During her time at University we see Lizzie plummet further into depression and settle into a cycle of drink, drugs and promiscuity. What sends her over the edge is her writer’s block, rendering her unable to do what she needs to, write.

What makes Lizzie such an unlikable character is her selfish behaviour. It causes distress to everyone who means to most to her, especially her overbearing mother brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Lange. The character of the mother is the key to understanding where some of Lizzie’s troubles came from.  While Lizzie’s deadbeat father may have been out of the picture, Lizzie’s mother compensated for his absence by becoming almost too involved as she tries to live vicariously through her daughter’s experiences. She is very proud of her daughter and takes every opportunity to talk and boast about her. Although Jessica Lange’s character is the route of Lizzie’s problems, the audience sees her meddling is just her way of showing affection to her daughter. When it is revealed just how much her mother is spending in the hope to make her daughter’s troubles go away it makes Lizzie’s outburst at her mother seem that much worse. Lizzie’s narcissism was first seen when she betrays her best friend, Ruby and then again when her mother throws her a birthday party and instead of being thankful, she lashes out at her mother and grandparents. The final straw before her suicide attempt is when she destroys what could have been a promising relationship with Rafe.

Christina Ricci was very important to the success of the film. Prozac Nation was a passion project for Ricci, she was also an executive producer and had influence on the screenplay, sacking the first screen writer. She was careful not to cross the line of her portrayal of Wurtzel by being overly dramatic and Ricci succeeded in the difficult task of finding the endearing qualities in such a complex and misunderstood character.

Prozac Nation’s key theme is Depression, as it is an exploration of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s struggles with mental illness but the film is also made with a backdrop of drug abuse and the importance of family values and relationships. Each of the themes feed into one another as the route of her depression is her poor relationship with her father and this fuels her drug abuse which worsens her situation.

Depression is a difficult theme to explore in film. It doesn’t manifest itself in a way that can be seen. So the task of the filmmaker making a film about the feelings experienced by Lizzie was a tough one. Instead of simply showing what she does as a result of her illness director, Eric Skjoldbjærg, tries to make viewers understand that she is spinning out of control with use of camera technique. One of the film’s features brought up by the critics was the overuse of flashbacks which leaves the audience somewhat disorientated, however it can be argued that this was just another technique Skjoldbjærg used to engage the audience and keep them in Lizzie’s frame of mind. If the audience had not had first hand experience with depression, either themselves or somebody close to them, it may be difficult for them to empathise with Lizzie and just view her as a vile, unpleasant narcissist.

Although some people do see Lizzie’s character to be an unpleasant, the film doesn’t actually go about vilifying its protagonist. It shows the events unfolding, usually as a result of Lizzie’s actions, accompanied by a voiceover. The voiceover is an effective tool used by the filmmaker to allow the audience to hear Lizzie’s thoughts and her point of view. In some ways her erratic behaviour is often somewhat justified by her monologue. Another reason the voiceover is suitable is that it makes the film even more closely linked to the memoir.

Whilst Christina Ricci’s character tends to scream at the top of her lungs during her onscreen dialogue, the tone of the voiceover is more sombre. This makes the audience realise that although Lizzie is acting out, this is not a reflection of inner feelings.

The film’s cinematography is very different from the other works of the director.  The story lines of Skjoldbjærg’s films are generally quite dark and often morbid but the images in these films differ from that of ‘Prozac Nation’  as they’re grittier, darker with a lot of blue tones. The shots in ‘Prozac Nation’, feature a lot of pastel colours amongst muted tones, particularly pale pink and grey with low contrast, naturalistic lighting.

Whilst there are certainly flaws in the production, such as significant parts of the narrative, such as her childhood and teen years, being missing, Prozac Nation is a beautifully shot insight to the troubled mind of a young depressed girl. While the film accurately depicts Elizabeth Wurtzel’s personal struggles it doesn’t pick up on the author’s examination of ‘depression culture’ until the very end. Perhaps it was for this reason Wurtzel didn’t respond well to the film herself, she even referred to it as being ‘horrible’. If you take the film for what it is, a microcosm of today’s culture it is a very enjoyable film.

Since my last post, I have been tremendously busy working on content for BOA Broadcast’s first magazine show, ‘Friday @ Two’.

After finishing off ‘Sack Sales on New Street’, I filmed a cooking show with Jake. We tried to steer away from the usual presenter led programmes and concentrate more on the visuals. I am really proud of the finished product so please, check it out!

The final VT I worked on was a feature on the Clothes show. With our press passes we were able to get into restricted areas and get interviews with designers, organisers and models. For me, the highlight of the experience was having to fight our way to the front of the press pit at the end of the fashion theatre catwalk.

Here’s the final product…

The filming of ‘Friday @ Two’ went smoothly. It was a very collaborative effort, we chose two students from the acting pathway to present after the auditions and they were absolutely fabulous. The rest of the crew worked well together and despite a few hiccups along the way, I think we pulled through it.

I am looking forward to working on the next episode of ‘Friday @ Two’ and using everything we learnt to make February’s show even better than our Christmas special.