Grey Gardens and Paris Is Burning
Two very different beasts, but both amazing documentary films, so for these purposes they are As One. Both are certified classics and have been a huge influence on me.
Grey Gardens, as you probably know as it is so beloved of so very many, is about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Beale (Big Edie and Little Edie) – aunt and cousin, respectively, to Jacqueline Onassis, and the inhabitants of Grey Gardens, their once-grand family home in the Hamptons.
Somewhat down on their luck, they inhabit various rooms of their derelict old house one at a time, surrounded by animals and expensive filth, eating cat food and pretending it’s fois gras; at one point wondering out loud whether they still have that Rembrandt knocking about or whether the raccoons in the attic ate it. Little Edie does her ‘terrific dances’, with Big Edie grumbling and singing ‘Tea For Two’ whilst drinking cocktails in bed and cooking corn-on-the-cob on a camping stove.
If this sounds like an eccentric spectacle, that’s because it is – but that’s not all it is, and the people who think that (of whom there are many) are missing the point entirely. The Edies are warm and witty and wise, fashion icons with their vintage furs and bright headscarves, and most importantly they are a wonderful lesson in living life on your own terms. They are self aware and they don’t care what you think – they know that they are bloody brilliant. They provide a lovely archetype of mother/daughter relationships, in all their messy (passive-aggressive/co-dependent/mutually protective/bickering) loveliness. Every time I watch it, it makes me feel like living a little bit braver.
Paris Is Burning is not set in Paris, but in New York. The New York of the early 80s, which no longer exists, which is both a kind-of good and a kind-of bad thing. It is about the drag balls and family ‘houses’ in Harlem, the birth of voguing and the reality behind it.
A drag ball was the centre of an elaborately structured gay and transgender community, a sort of beauty contest with strict rules and categories where participants could ‘walk’ for their ‘houses’ (like a really glamorous version of street gangs – with names like Xtravaganza, Ninja and St Laurent) and compete for the ultimate accolade of ‘legendary’ status. What I love is how inclusive they were – with categories such as ‘young executive’ or ‘butch queen’, so that those who couldn’t pass in a ball gown or a miniskirt could all join in.
What is truly heartbreaking is the juxtaposition of this and the glamorous participants’ everyday lives – many of them street kids and sex workers as well as part-time performance artistes. The balls were part of an amazing fantasy world, constructed not only as a creative outlet and social meeting point, but as a temporary escape from a cruel reality.
You will cry your eyes out and you will think about it for days (years, if you’re me). You will fall in love with Venus Xtravaganza and wish that you could save her from herself. Octavia St Laurent will be the most beautiful woman you have ever seen in your life. You will want to go to New York, wear enormous earrings and sit on a stoop with a ghetto-blaster.
OK, that last one might just be me. And. Every time I watch it, it makes me feel like living a little bit braver.