I am glad that I set the TV to record lots of programmes while I was away recently, particularly some movies that I would otherwise have missed. Last night I watched “
Following the film, I watched the documentary as well. A few things stood out for me: one being how much of the dialogue from the documentary is included in the film’s script. The second was how cleverly the actors took on the nuances of the characters, again based upon attention to the details provided in the documentary, but also by digging deep into archival material beforehand.
Jessica Lange, playing ‘Big’ Edie Beale, is just not acting by means of a fantastic ageing transformation accomplished by make-up. She has also done her homework. In one scene in the documentary, Edie removes and then replaces two horn combs from either side of her aged grey hair. In the drama, Lange does the very same bit of ‘stage business’. It is through this attention to personal detail that the character becomes believable and real. The comparisons between the two efforts go on; what is important here is to note how in-depth ‘research’ is being used to produce dramatic story telling.
These are details that take on importance for me in our writing of the script for our project, Gay and Pleasant Land?. At this juncture (where most of the research has been carried out and we are just beginning to use improvisation for script development), my viewing of these two films has added poignancy. Albert Maysles, one of the filmmakers, has stated that the characters are ‘just like anybody else, but more so’. Elsewhere, Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) reports: ‘It’s very simple to get a cross section of society within a village; you get a microcosm of the social macrocosm’. Our film about being gay and living in a rural village should do exactly that. This is what we hope will give it its universality and connection with the audience.
Our efforts here (as well as in other filmic work being carried out by myself and
The paradox of ‘death of the author’ became clear to me when watching Grey Gardens last night. Although I was involved and absorbed by the story of these two women, it became clear to me that I also had my own story to tell, one that reflected the setting of Grey Gardens, perhaps even some of its story. I questioned if the only story that any of us have to tell is our own? In blurring the relation between the writer and his characters, which am I? How transparent am I really then, in telling someone else’s story? What rings true for me in this case is that Grey Gardens moved me profoundly because I found my own story in it.
When I was 21 years old, I spent the summer living with a family in Chestnut Hill, a part of
The family in this case was Irish Catholic and, therefore, outsiders in Anglo-Saxon, upper-crust Chestnut Hill (in the 1920s locals burned down the only Catholic church in the area). The family’s two daughters were day students at Raven Hill, the same private school run by Catholic nuns that Grace Kelly (another upwardly-mobile Irish-Catholic Philadelphia family) attended.
The house was a huge Victorian pile with lots of rooms and a widow’s walk perched on top. It was painted shades of grey at the time and a bit dilapidated. The owners of the house and parents of the two Raven Hill girls, Anna and Charlie Meehan, were struggling financially. The house reflected this, with its former glory furnished with the Meehan's well worn fittings that had seen their day. There were lots of rooms, just like
The parties at the house were fantastic events and the girls had lots of college-aged friends who came around for them. Anna Meehan was ‘liberal’ in her permissiveness in terms of the girls’ behaviour, probably wrongly assuming that Catholic nuns had done their job and put enough of the fear of Jesus in them to keep them virginal. Charlie wasn’t around much because he was trying to get several failed or failing business back on track. Anna was director of a nursing home somewhere and seemed to provide the main source of income for the family. Their lifestyle was one of assume the position and it will follow you.
Anna had invented a background of Austrian Catholic roots and even given her daughters names of which the Von Trapp family would have approved. Adopted by a modest couple of Austrian lineage herself, Anna had used this fact to deny the truth that she was Irish Catholic by blood; this was only compounded by the other fact that Irish-American Charlie got her pregnant and so she ended up married to an Irishman after all.
After I had stayed a few weeks at the Meehan’s and feeling somewhat guilty as the long-term guest who had come to dinner, Charlie Meehan had a heart attack and died suddenly. The family was devastated. Anna, who had fought with Charlie constantly, was beside herself with the kind of grief only guilt can produce. Still, life must go on; the show must go on. This was a test of Anna’s will to survive all obstacles and she rose to the occasion. I offered to pay rent to stay at the house for the summer, and Anna agreed (quietly and in private, of course). After a lavish funeral and a week or two of mourning, the parties resumed. It was summer after all and the girls were teenagers. It made sense to carry on and show Chestnut Hill what they were made of.
It was my
For me, it was a summer of love, a devastating platonic love for a sixteen year old boy whose mother came after me with a butcher’s knife. Position and pretense coupled with a romantic youth had convinced me in my naïveté that anything was possible, even this. The hard lesson learned that summer was that this in not the case, and never would be. This was a summer of beginnings, and an end.
* In the film, Little Edie dreamily tells this to David and Albert Maysles.