Falling In Love With a Freshened Up Grey Gardens

By  · Published on March 4th, 2015

Janus Films

Grey Gardens is a film about cleanliness. More accurately, it’s about a lack of cleanliness and a disdain for the pristine and a rejection of order – but it’s still about all of those things, and keenly so. It’s only fitting then that the documentary classic from Albert and David Maysles (and also Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) be restored to its former glory, thanks to a crisp and clean new 2K restoration lifted right from the original film’s reels and available in limited release starting this Friday. (To get technical, and per the film’s press notes: “the original 16mm A/B camera negative, held in the Academy’s collections, was used to create two separate 2K scans, of the A and B rolls, on a Lasergraphics film scanner. These were then assembled into a final master using the existing 35mm blowup color reversal internegative (CRI) as a reference. In addition, a handful of shots in the final master were replaced from the CRI. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, and jitter were manually removed.”)

In short, it looks good. Good enough to make you fall in love with the film – and with the Edies Bouiver Beale, both Big and Little – all over again.

Even if you’ve never seen Grey Gardens (and when I saw the restoration last week, it had been so long since I had seen the complete film, and never on the big screen), you’re likely at least peripherally familiar with the saga of the Beale women. The mother and daughter duo – relations of Jackie O., as is frequently noted when they are discussed independent of the film, and as is readily present in the film itself – are a part of pop culture vernacular for a few reasons, including their horrific hoarding tendencies (that cable television is now home to multiple weekly series about hoarders would likely not stir much in the Beales, they’d likely not relate to those same stories on the small screen), the mythos of their tattered glory (they were rich and beautiful, and then, they weren’t), and their particularly special sartorial decisions. Talking about the Beales is shorthand for talking about a lot of things, some of them charming, all of them at least mildly sad.

Which is why it might be easy to forget just how wonderful they are in the Maysles’ film. The slice of life documentary is told in direct cinema fashion, essentially lending itself over to the whims of the Beales themselves. Both Maysles linger outside the frame – and sometimes even in it – and the documentary never pretends to be anything else than, well, a documentary. Both Beales are surprisingly open and direct with the camera, and the brothers Maysles show things in a mostly unflinching manner. It’s not salacious in the least, though it could be, and when the brothers’ cameras linger over Big Edie’s crowded and filthy bed, it comes without judgment. This is what it is, the film seems to say, this is how things are.

Armchair psychologists have always found plenty to analyze in the film, from the ladies’ filthy living situation to their fraught relationship, but what always pops off the screen (for me, at least) is their originality and confidence and affection. Were they nuts? You know what, probably, but Grey Gardens is less about mental instability and more about persevering. The life that both Beales have – the filthy, lonely life – isn’t appealing, but they are. It’s hard to pinpoint charm or charisma, what it is, how it moves, why it works, but they’ve got it, especially Little Edie, mercurial, wild-eyed Edie.

To the uninitiated, Grey Gardens sounds like a strange movie to love, populated by still stranger characters, but the joy in seeing them – everyone, even Jerry Torre, goddamn Jerry Torre – in a crisply rendered new print, something clean enough and nice enough to befit their charms is hard to deny. Grey Gardens is a movie that sucks you in, because it’s not just a movie, but a life, a people, a whole story. Restoring it for the big screen, so that others can either partake for the first time or remember what they loved from before, isn’t just appropriately in line with its ruminations on the pristine, it’s necessary.