exploring art and writing

Grey Truths.

In Film and Documentary on January 27, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Film still from the Maysles brothers Grey Gardens 1975

“It is extremely difficult to know whether you ”have something” or not. Generally speaking, people…[try] to keep shooting until they have some sense in their gut that there is a film there”. Ellen Hovde on Grey Gardens and ‘Direct Cinema’ filmmaking (in Rosenthal 1980:375).

Oh, how I can relate to that. This elusive ‘something’ is the bane of my life, or at least the artistic aspect of it. To read that the Maysles brothers and co. spent massive amounts of their time filming so that they could achieve something resembling a normal feature-length documentary puts me at great ease. With a film where all you plan to do in terms of footage is record and hope you can’t afford to not have an excess of material. You need an extensive archive of footage, ready to be plundered and filtered through; to be chopped up and turned into (no matter what anyone says otherwise) some sort of truthful fiction, or fictional truth depending on how much you like to manipulate.

This manipulation has to make anyone involved in the process consider how much of a story they want to tell, how coherent they want it to be and how much of this coherence they want to be either their subject’s or their own. Audiences have to be aware of this but I’m not sure it’s ever really considered. In Jamie Uys 1974 documentary/film Animals are Beautiful People there is a definite reliance on the viewers gullibility; a fire in a birds nest never looked so deliberate! Saying that, however, I don’t think I would change anything about the film.

The whole idea of ‘truth’ seems to be a bit of a grey area. I often claim that my work is some kind of noble quest searching for the ‘truth’ of a human being, but this is mainly because as an art student I have to verbalise my ideas somehow to get by. The thing is, whilst I attempt to obtain some level of observation that goes beyond the norm of watching people from a safe distance whilst they are made-up for the lens, I can’t avoid putting my own manipulative spin on things. No-one can. I don’t particularly mind this due to it being universally unavoidable, but I also can’t get the idea of trickery out of my head. Perhaps it’s from watching too much of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe.

What worries me about all this ‘trickery’ (sometimes harmless and creative, sometimes not) is that apparently people aren’t aware of it; otherwise Brooker’s TV doss about TV would be pointless and therefore, we’d assume, non-existent. Umberto Eco wrote in the seventies that “without a semiotic awareness…films are viewed as magic spells…the illusions of reality” (in Vogels 2005:144); when people watch Top Gear, for instance, do they enjoy it for the scripted, directed fiction that it is? Do they realise that Jeremy Clarkson did not actually find a dead cow on the side of a road and spontaneously decide to put it on top of his car for them to chow down on? If so then it doesn’t necessarily have to detract from the enjoyment of viewing it; it may be heavily manipulated but at least it’s light Sunday entertainment and not a supposedly factual and informative product of the daily media. But the mass media isn’t what I’m here to talk about – it’s already been discussed to death in my dissertation, so RIP to that train of thought (for now).

What Grey Gardens really allows the viewer to consider is The Line. Where is it? If you don’t know then how can you stop yourself from crossing it? And if people never crossed this ‘line’ would film and art (plus anything else) have remotely progressed? This is where the ‘truth’ of footage becomes especially astringent and receptive. There is a difference between editing footage in a way that manipulates the intention of the content and editing it so that the content has its original intentions merely rearranged. Director Emile de Antonio claimed that “as soon as one points a camera, objectivity is a romantic hype” (in Vogels 2005:144); how very, very true. But in my opinion it doesn’t deflate the value of a film such as Grey Gardens, as many fearsome critics seemed to convince themselves throughout the seventies and beyond.

Cinema Verite and Direct cinema suffered because of this apparent falsity of intention in the quest for ‘authenticity’.  Since reading Jonathan Vogels chapter on Grey Gardens it appears that what was required from the filmmakers was a political slant that would procure valuable solutions to the content:

“…authenticity was dismissed as a sociohistorical construct that was itself laden with subjectivity. These theorists argued that because every film and every filmmaker must have a distinct point of view, only films that openly acknowledge their own processes for negotiating these limitations and biases could be considered trustworthy documents.” (2005:143)

The Maysles brothers did not offer this. They were observers who organised the footage they gathered into the stereotypical format of a feature film/documentary. The “godlike omniscience…that can responsibly and ethically impose judgement on other cultures or peoples” (2005:148) was, according to the critics, attempted in Grey Gardens but was not necessary or ethically appropriate. Neither was it, I believe, in the eyes of the Maysles brothers. Here lay the misunderstanding.

I am myself now having to face such accusations towards my own work, albeit I am my own accuser. In her discussion with Alan Rosenthal, Ellen Hovde (co-director and editor of Grey Gardens) clarifies the reason for manipulating the footage into a coherent ‘storyline’:

…The difficulty in condensing reality is that it is not written as well as O’Neill. It is not as economical. And when you try and condense it into film time, you very often find that the whole scene is falling apart…We were really trying to take real people’s lives, and the interaction between people, and make that interesting because it is psychologically interesting, and not because something is going to happen that you are waiting for.” (1980:384)

The realisation here, of course, is what Hovde herself admits earlier in the interview: that the Verite films were not reality being photographed as it happened, supposedly resulting in a final product that was completely uncut and un-tampered with. Perhaps if previous filmmakers had admitted this then there wouldn’t have been such a torrent of sceptical criticism, criticism that for Grey Gardens also revolved around the previously mentioned ethical boundaries surrounding the Beales.

The concern here was that the Beales were too vulnerable and mentally incompetent to fully understand what they were consenting to. The Maysles brothers, therefore, were apparently intrusive, “cruel” and “merciless” (in Vogels 2005:146) in their imposition on the two women. To return to Hovde’s interview, however, she discusses with Rosenthal a scene in which Little Edie talks wittily about Republican politics. Hovde and her fellow co-director/editor Muffie Meyer were in direct contention with David Maysles over the inclusion of this scene; they wanted it in, Maysles definitely did not. She claims that “the real reason why we wanted it was that it showed Edie in a moment that was not narcissistic….She is not like that” (1980:380). Maysles never clearly stated his reason for declining to include the scene; this does perhaps hint that there was a specific perspective from which he wanted to portray the women. ‘Harmful’ manipulation here takes the form of absence.

If the Beales were satisfied with their portrayal, however, then the rest of the audience could perhaps have more faith in their judgement of the film and of themselves. Showing the “sagging flesh” (2005:146) of two older women may have appalled Walter Goodman of the New York Times, as well as countless older women who considered it “not decent” and “cruel” (Hovde, in Rosenthal 1980:386), but there is nothing really offensive or malicious about it. As Little Edie says: “well, if you’re fifty-eight and your thighs are going flabby, too, that’s how it is” (in Rosenthal 1980:386); this sounds much healthier an attitude to uphold than the previous one. Perhaps people just don’t like to be reminded that there are things considered unpleasant in the world that are unavoidable and irreversible. This doesn’t mean that they are ‘bad’; they’re just there. It certainly doesn’t mean that the portrayal of these things is automatically ‘cruel’.

If the Beales trust of the Maysles was justified, and competently so, then there is nothing insidious about the formulation of Grey Gardens. Despite this I get the feeling that the audience hasn’t been offered the chance of partaking in the two women’s more sane moments; maybe the Maysles brothers final editing choices were the sole reason for the objections that the film instigated, rather than the two Edie’s actually being mentally incapable of comprehending the situation. According to Vogels, however, “in making the film the way they did, the filmmakers were not responding to critics; they were creating a film they felt was most suited to story of the Beales” (1980:151); if so then bravo to the Maysles, or perhaps more appropriately, bravo to the Beales. They certainly succeeded in depicting an “authenticity [that] was linked to the desire to expand human connectedness” (in Vogels 1980:153), if not to one of all-round character and life-style. I am very glad to have been offered insight into such bizarre intimacies between two human beings.

So this ethical ‘line’, this boundary; I suppose it lies with the subject. Sometimes controversial imagery is deemed necessary in order to change things (drug campaigns etc.), sometimes seemingly inoffensive footage is considered horrific by the subjects themselves; I am almost one hundred percent positive that had the Beales been horrified by Grey Gardens, the Maysles brothers would have reconsidered the project. Perhaps I’m being naïve. What I do trust, though, is the need and the drive to create whatever project is channelling through your brain; to contend with “a perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation” (Bruzzi, in Vogels 2005:156) and what this means in terms of manipulation and expression. Just own up to it and don’t pretend that what you see on a screen will ever portray exactly to what it is intended signify in reality.


Rosenthal, Alan: The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Filmmaking, (1980) University of California Press.

Vogels, Jonathan: The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles, (2005) Southern Illinois University Press.

  1. […] I strongly comply with, particularly since reading texts regarding the Cinema Verite movement (see Grey Gardens blog). She claims in the featured interview with Carl Freedman that “I thought what I had to say […]

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