Over the last couple of days, we've watched Grey Gardens and Hannah Takes the Stairs. The former is a truly disquieting 1975 documentary about an aged mother and adult daughter - cousins of Jackie O. - who have lost their collective mind and are living in squalor in a single room in a run-down mansion in East Hampton.
Edie and Edith tear at each other hour after endless hour. One of their dozen-plus cats shit in the corner, behind an oil portrait of the mother. They peer through crumbling old photo albums and listen to vintage recordings of the mother singing. The mostly bedridden mother frequently goes naked, the daughter rambles on to the camera, confiding endlessly that she simply can't take another winter there and wants to go back to NYC. Talking, talking, while she goes up to the attic with bare lathing, empties a whole loaf of Wonder Bread and an entire box of Purina Cat Chow on to some newspaper on the floor. Not for the cats, but for the raccoons who live up there. They live in the past while it literally crumbles around them.
I remarked to Shaun that the titular mansion is like the house we homeowners find ourselves in during particularly troubled dreams - dark and cold, open to the elements, haunted by guilty sprits on the second floor, plaster delaminating all around, forested in and all but inaccessible, and, of course, impossible to leave.
Roger Ebert calls it a comedy. What film was he watching?
Hannah Takes the Stairs is (I guess) what would be considered at romantic comedy, but the Dogme-ish stylistic conventions of the new Mumblecore movement make it elliptical, episodic and remote. Which isn't to say that it's hard to follow, but it does feel as though you're viewing all of the out-takes from another more conventionally structured film.
First impression? It features way too much nudity from Greta Gerwig, who plays the eponymous character. The film open on a shot of her showering with her first boyfriend, and closes on a shot of her and her third boyfriend in the tub playing trumpets together. And there's far more in between - and not only is it some of the least erotic footage ever shot, but takes you out of the movie to the extent that you almost start feeling that the whole enterprise is vaguely exploitive. Which it's not, but, alright already.
Also, at no point does Hannah ever actually take any stairs.
Will you like either of these films? Who can say? Both exist in a fascinating dreamlike state, the camera floating around very much like yourself as a disembodied participant, moving abstractedly forward with no indication of the time that has passed between scenes - an hour or a month. Both focus on determinedly eccentric and self-involved women at three distinct stages of life, all of whom define themselves by how men react to them.
Both are exercises in which the style and form of the film is the saving grace - the 'direct cinema' documentary style of Grey Gardens acknowledges the presence of the film crew, but mostly just site back in mute, unfiltered and formless observation. It's pretty potent, for something that could have basically become a 90 minute episode of Cops in the hands of lesser filmmakers. And all of the characters and situations in Hannah - if moved one chair to the right - could have made up the worst sitcom of the decade, like the American version of Coupling, only far, far worse. And yet the people are who they say they are, real and jerky and genuinely unattractive, and all the more compelling for that.
What the hell - I'll go on record as saying I liked both very much. Grey Gardens could actually be viewed as a motivational film, given how skeeved you might feel after viewing. Seriously, as soon as we finished watching it, Yesenia and I made plans to renovate our master bedroom and clean the house once the tenants are gone.