We do love a documentary that shows life in its weird and wonderful rich self. These two documentaries are about outsiders who relish and are inspired by the invasion of the cameras into their own private words.
See the similarities of two very different films below. PE
Are we, as a society, obsessed with watching others’ lives? The movie industry, reality television, and – of course – documentaries offer us a unique window: it is their entertainment value – as well as the sometimes educational aspect – that has captured our voyeuristic fascination.
Our guest editors suggested a list of documentaries as part of our ‘Real Life and Role Play’ issue, including ‘The Wolfpack’, Capturing the Friedmans’, ‘Grey Gardens’, and ‘F is For Fake’.
‘Grey Gardens’ and ‘The Wolfpack’ are two pieces whose protagonists – consciously or otherwise – manipulate the camera to show a specific version of themselves. Though they were made 40 years apart, we are given an insight into two very obscure lifestyles, and those protagonists live in a time warp of suspended reality.
‘Grey Gardens’, directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, depicts the everyday lives of two eccentric, reclusive, formally upper class women – a 79-year-old mother and her 58-year-old daughter, both named Edie Bouvier-Beale. They lived in poverty at Grey Gardens, a derelict mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, amidst mess, litter, numerous flea-ridden stray cats, and animal waste. Ironically, they were aunt and cousin of former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy Onassis – essentially, American royalty. The documentary was re-created almost word-for-word into a 2009 film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the Edies.
‘The Wolfpack’, directed by Crystal Moselle, shows six brothers from the Angulo family, ranging in age from 11 to 18, who lived virtually their entire lives confined by their paranoid father inside a four-bedroom apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. They were homeschooled by their parents, taught that the outside world was dangerous, and were only allowed to leave the apartment on few strictly-monitored trips, one year not leaving the house at all. Their only comfort was found in re-creating their favourite films using word-for-word dialogue as well as sets, props, and costumes made from whatever was lying around the house.
The thematic overlap is ongoing throughout the two documentaries in the following ways.
‘Grey Gardens’, released in 1975, existed in a pre-social media age, yet the Edies’ concern with image is very Instagram-appropriate: Little Edie describes her sarongs, headscarves, and stockings with the vivid detail and natural confidence of a fashion blogger in 2018, as if she is addressing an audience eager to copy her style. She behaves like a celebrity, showing off her humble abode and her ‘normal’ life, exuding an energy not unlike Blanche DuBois.
Though ‘The Wolfpack’ was released in 2015, right in the middle of the onslaught of the Facebook-Twitter-Instagram trifecta, they lived a life outside of normalcy, without internet or much knowledge about the outside world except through movies’ portrayal of ordinary life.
How the camera portrays each set of people is an interesting antithesis. The Edies are eccentric older ladies who live in their own segment of time and squabble about a raccoon hiding in the walls of their house. They are filmed with a sense of sympathy: the Maysles’ depict a fall from grace, panning back and forth from an unkempt Big Edie with messy hair and lopsided glasses in her cluttered bedroom reminiscing about her time as a gifted singer, to a photograph by the bed of her as a tidy, fashionably-dressed young woman.
The Angulos are viewed by Moselle as an adult would view a group of mistreated children. The lens is compassionate, giving the teenage boys the opportunity to tell their story at their own pace. They show the camera their DVD collection and a ranking list of their favourites, and it is this love of cinema – which they share in common with Moselle – that cemented their introduction to each other in 2010. It creates an equal platform between the two sets of film aficionados.
Relationship With the Camera
Surely, the purpose of a documentary is to film a subject in their natural environment and to have as little an effect as possible on its outcome. And yet, in both pieces, it is the subject that directs the lens in the telling of the narrative.
In ‘Grey Gardens’, the Edies behave as if they are celebrities in their own right; they play it up for the camera as though they are the stars of their movie – which they do eventually become through the release of this documentary. Yet they fail to maintain the distance between subject and camera, instead desiring a constant human interaction by bringing the brothers into the documentary, addressing and flirting with their faceless and sometimes audible presence.
In ‘The Wolfpack’, the boys use the camera in two different ways for different reasons: partly for their own personal use and as escapism through recreating movies, and partly as a platform to tell their story. Each brings out a different side to them: the movies, a confidence cultivated through performing alongside each other; the documentary, a vulnerability present due to their young age and strange circumstance, coupled with a desire to make the best out of a difficult reality.
Both sets of people are fragile personalities and clearly affected.
The Angulo brothers operate with a pack mentality and have formed an unbreakable bond in their brotherhood; with no friends, they had only each other. They find strength and support in one another, as well as through the movie medium, and the boys vocalise this. One says: “Movies opened up another world. If I didn’t have (them), life would be pretty boring and there wouldn’t be any point to go on”. The boys of ‘The Wolfpack’ are aware that their upbringing was not normal, and instead ironically learn what is ‘normal’ through fictional movies. Says one brother: “We didn’t know the world and I think the movies helped us create our own kind of world”. Another interjects: “But we would always know the difference between real life and the movies”.
The Edies live on another realm entirely. Their fantasy stems from the fact that they had a taste of the high life, and have not yet had their fill: their present is spent living vicariously through memories, not unlike Charles Dickens’ unfortunate character, the jilted bride, Miss Havisham. Poignantly, Little Edie herself says: “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. It’s awfully difficult”. The peculiar pair are a fountain of neverending validation for each other’s version of the truth; their delusion only continues because they source their eccentricity and acceptance from each other.
The essence of these documentaries is the way they blur the lines of fantasy and reality. From living in a dilapidated and unsanitary house to essentially being banned from interacting with people outside their own family, each group proves their view of reality is very different to the viewer’s, and they uniquely use the lens to tell their own story, alongside – or in spite of - Mayseles and Moselle’s direction.