Thursday, March 19, 2009

Grey Gardens, the Remake: Memora-Beale-ia

It's probably too early to tell how much the upcoming film about the Beales women will deviate from or correspond to historical record, but it's clear from the criminally brief trailer which has surfaced on HBO's website that the Grey Gardens "remake" is more than a little faithful to the documentaries and the musical.

When creating their Big Edie Beale, the filmmakers and Jessica Lange had the documentaries made by the Maysles brothers and the more recent musical to go by, and they've fashioned a characterization which an audience who has seen one or all of those will expect. There were many facets to the Beales. There are many facets to anyone put on film, documentary or otherwise, and what percentage of that comes through or makes it into the final cut is usually pretty minimal, a matter of narrative economy and the director's (and editor's) point of view. Watching the trailer, I thought at first that scenes from the documentaries had been inserted into the clip. Watching it a second time, I realized these scenes had been faithfully recreated, visually at least, and these recreations seem to serve as a touchstone for branching off into less recognizable territory (i.e. biographical details and speculations which do not appear in the documentaries but have appeared in the musical and thus, co-mingling fact with fiction, seem authentic), lending a sense of veracity to their inevitably speculative nature.

The original Grey Gardens documentary was released in 1975. In 2006, hours of unseen footage were assembled into an extension of that story, which by then had become culturally ubiquitous enough to merit the revisitation in the first place. For those who'd seen the first film, the second was an oddly revelatory experience. I first saw Grey Gardens in the early nineties, when I visited a friend who had just started watching it. We were stoned but needn't have been. The documentary itself is a mind-altering substance, creating the dreamlike sensation of watching some fugitive, heretofore undiscovered pocket of memory. The narrative is so vice-like in its exclusion of extraneous detail, so tightly focused on the insular world of its subjects, that watching it on TV can feel like peeping through a neighbor's keyhole. During the course of the film, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale direct their conversation to the Maysles brothers, but the directors have so scrupulously excised themselves from the footage that it's as if the women are talking to the viewer. When one or both of the brothers does appear in the margins of the frame, their presence is only fleeting, and your mind pushes them out in an unconscious effort to preserve the trance induced by the perversely claustrophobic atmosphere.

The intrinsic dishonesty of the documentary impulse and practice is exposed by these random appearances, which might be another reason we try to block them out. It's generally, and mistakenly, agreed that documentary, however biased its maker(s), is filmed reality, even at its most structured. It's true, filming a situation will inevitably capture elements of its shared or objective reality (if such a thing exists), but it's probably impossible to say which parts reflect the truth, and whose truth that ultimately is anyway. Filming fiction is capturing some sort of reality as well, as various real situations occur within the "forced" environment of an openly constructed movie. Like Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles worked very hard to remove evidence of their presence from their work. This can lead to an airtight narrative quality which mimics the strategies of cinema verite, the irony being that cinema verite was a constructed version of reality meant to address another construction, the Hollywood style of movie-making, with its manipulative arsenal of happy endings and tragic plot devices. The assumption has been that cinema verite and any style of filmmaking which removes the hallmark indications of directorial intent, let alone presence, gets closer to the truth, as if such a film were somehow not a film but a time capsule.
The second Beales documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens, showed what a strategic manipulation the first had been, opening up the tightly focused narrative perimeters to expand on recognizable scenarios, showing they'd been tampered with. This revealed different expressions, different exchanges, creating new associations, different if not contradictory interpretations. The second film showed that the first film was a perspective formed by two men entering into this closed off world. The second film demonstrates a maturation of that perspective, an evolution and, in some respects, a rethinking. The lives of the Beale women seem much less peculiar in the second film, or perhaps it's just that their eccentricities are placed within a more recognizable context, humanizing them.

Little Edie Beale, particularly, is softened by this widening of the lens; she seems less harsh, her feelings toward her mother more complicated and well-rounded. Affection complicates the anger and resentment. The deep dark mystery of the first film--what happened to these two women?--is attenuated by the second: what happened was ultimately no more complicated than what happens between any mother and daughter, possessing its own private language and repertoire of coded gesture. Rather than defuse the gravity of the first film, The Beales of Grey Gardens imbues its characters with a poignancy which makes their situation more recognizably tragic.

Christine Ebersole's impersonation of Little Edie in the 2006 musical based on the Beales brought Grey Gardens to the masses. People who had never heard of the movie or its subjects brought to their first viewing an expectation created by Ebersole's reenactment, as if the film were a sequel to the musical. The movie was engaging to the extent that it corresponded to these expectations, and frustrating where it diverged from them. The two act musical began with an openly speculative account of early Big and Little Edie, when the former was 47 and the latter 24. The second act works from the events of the documentary. The forthcoming remake is probably a hybrid of all three: like the first act of the musical it imagines the Beales as younger women; later, it confines them to the stage setting of the documentaries. Who knows whether these performances or this latest iteration will bear any resemblance to the real women, but it's probably safe to say that isn't the primary objective of the storytellers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Paul Provenza on Drawing the (Punch) Line in Comedy

"Andy Kaufman is a perfect example of somebody who went very far in the other direction. What Andy Kaufman did is the equivalent of what Picasso did. Picasso basically said everything you’ve been looking at in normal paintings is limiting. The edges of the canvas - we always assume - are the audiences laughing, and the joke ends at the edge of the stage, and there’s the audience’s response. What Andy Kaufman did is he took the punch line and put it right out into the audience. He said the way the audience reacts is where the punch line is. So, you’d go see an Andy Kaufman show where half the audience was irate at what he’s doing and the other half of the audience is fucking howling at that half of the audience. And that’s where the genius is. That’s the joke. He eliminated the edges of the canvas. He changed them completely. That to me is a great example of someone who really expanded our notion of what comedy is— that comedy is just as much about the way people react to things."

-Paul Provenza (pictured above at Sundance, promoting The Aristocrats)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Patricia Neal in Hud: "I Just Act My Best; That's All I Do, Wherever I Am."

The movie was marketed and is probably best remembered as a Paul Newman vehicle, but the second Patricia Neal starts talking in Hud your attention shifts and the narrative reassembles itself around her so that you see everyone in the story through her eyes. Her screen presence is so striking you wonder why you haven't heard more about her.

She was a "patron" in Breakfast at Tiffany's. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, as in Hud and The Fountainhead, she played moral center. It was a role for which she seemed naturally well suited. In Tiffany's she exudes the same gravelly, shop-worn weariness, but applies it toward totally different ends, which is to say she plays high class instead of middle- to low-. The result makes what was virtuous in Hud and Earth seem vaguely tawdry. She still has the sass and everything she says feels ironic but there's no core there and she knows it, and all the sass puts that emptiness in quotation marks. No less calculating in A Face in the Crowd, she's at least trying to hide it from everyone else, exploiting the public's need to deny that empty core through Andy Griffith's podunk charm and street level charisma.

What the tone of her voice says in Hud is that people like Newman's character always get the attention, always charm people, sometimes even annoy or enrage them but always elicit their focus, either way, demanding and receiving the lion's share of the story; Neal knows it and even tells Newman as much, after he attempts to rape her and before she skips town. She's devoted herself totally to his family but she can see the insidious effect his relentless neediness and selfishness is having on his father and his nephew. After she gets on the bus, the father dies and the nephew leaves, too, lending a sense of prophetic wisdom to her character. Paul Newman locks himself in the house, asserting sole ownership of a big empty nothing. Neal's character in Hud is similar to Newman's, seeming at first its equal in smarmy insincerity. Both characters are sarcastic, even caustic. Neither shows much emotion. They play a game with each other this way and seem to be moving toward some sort of alliance, until Newman gets abusive, exposing their differences. He takes what he wants and doesn't much care. She takes what she's given and, remembering her place, pretends not to be bothered. By leaving, she exerts her independence, essentially taking an escape hatch out of the story. She's not about to stay aboard a sinking ship, and in fact when Newman closes himself in at the end, shutting the family home's door on the camera, the gesture is absolutely a termination. Following his story has lead to a dead end. Better to have gotten on the bus with Neal. Newman's smarmy veneer hides nothing but more guile, whereas Neal's is an intricate subterfuge.

Who knows what the personal events of her life had to do with the strength and depth of her performance here and in other films. She was married to writer Roald Dahl for thirty years. Hud was released in 1963. Three years earlier, the couple's infant son sustained permanent brain injuries when his carriage was run over by a New York City taxicab. Two years after this incident, their seven year-old daughter contracted measles and died. Breakfast at Tiffany's came out that year, and for many viewers, news of these tragic events must have infused her performance as a lonely, quietly desperate woman with a sense of authenticity the written role lacked. At 39 she suffered three strokes in one evening. Dahl helped nurse her back to health.

There's no doubt that the easy candor she displayed on screen had roots in her off screen, everyday personality. Speaking in an interview about Truman Capote, she said, "I met him at a couple of parties, but he didn't really talk much to me. He wanted rich ones to talk to..." trailing off in a knowing, good-natured giggle. She adored Lillian Hellman, thought Tennessee Williams was wonderful, found almost everybody delightful, whatever their professional shortcomings (Hellman? A brilliant playwright, but not such a great director). She loved Blake Edwards, the director of Tiffany's. She loved George Peppard, too, or had loved him, the first time they worked together. He wasn't crazy about his character being dominated by a woman. He pitched a hissy fit with Edwards and "I think he got his way, because I had a much better part than it was in the film, but he did not want ME to dominate him. I don't know what was wrong with him." Her, she just "[did] what's written."