That Summer: Premature Greying, by David Bax
Göran Hugo Olsson’s That Summer kicks off with a bit of a fake-out. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think this was going to be a documentary about Andy Warhol and the Factory crew hanging out at a Montauk beach house. Though the prospect of a Warhol-in-the-country film sounds enticing, what Olsson is actually doing is simply establishing the milieu from which the rest of his story springs. As the credits note, most of the footage we’ll see here was originally shot by photographer Peter Beard and avant garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, both part of the Warhol scene. That version of the New York art world seems so frozen in time as to be something almost alien today, which, it turns out, is a very helpful way of looking at That Summer‘s actual subjects, Edith and Little Edie Beale.
In 1972, Beard and Mekas (with some help from the Maysles brothers, before they would eventually make their own documentary on the Beales), went with their friend Lee Radziwell (née Bouvier) to visit her relatives at their East Hampton home. They brought along a camera. What follows is months’ worth of footage, unused until Olsson came along, of Edith and Little Edie talking about their pasts, their present troubles and headaches and their potential futures—all while begrudgingly allowing their home to undergo the requisite renovations to keep the town from condemning it—with Radziwell serving as a sort of interviewer/host.
Olsson’s initial approach, where he introduces the filmmakers before their subjects, is one of mosaic or montage. Shots of Warhol, Paul Morrissey and others cavorting on an overcast beach collide into and dance with one another while Beard reminisces in the present day via voiceover. Once we arrive at the mansion, which you probably know is called Grey Gardens, things settle into a more conventional, chronological arrangement. Still, Olsson’s ability to craft a documentary largely out of found footage, as he did with 2011’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, is impressive. The only new footage here is of Beard flipping through his 1970s photographs, a note of nostalgic melancholy that bookends and informs the film in between.
Edith and Little Edie have become ironic cult figures, as much celebrated as laughed at by generations that grew up post-Grey Gardens. In That Summer, it is to some extent easy to see why. The way they talk directly over one another, to one another, in two thoroughly different conversations is often truly hilarious, especially with their accents from another time, all “rahther” and “hahsn’t” (and I’m not even going to try to phoneticize the way they pronounce “furniture”). But the film is also shot through with reminders of these women’s humanity. In large part, that’s due to the presence of Radziwell, who has known them all her life and regards them not as subjects but as family.
Such sympathetic insight lends more than a whiff of tragedy to That Summer. The demonized East Hampton officials, it’s more than implied, aren’t worried about the safety of the house so much as they are made angrily uncomfortable by the mere fact of these two deeply idiosyncratic figures in their midst. Society, in almost any form it takes, has a self-preserving interest in flushing out the weirdos. Olsson lets us see not only the injustice but the cruelty of this, especially when he includes an almost tossed-off hint at Little Edie’s past sexual trauma.
Heavy as it may sound, That Summer is mostly a fun 80 minutes spent in the company of charming characters. Yet the sadness seeps in. The renovations are a serendipitous metaphor. Room by room, wall by wall, fixture by fixture, Grey Gardens is being replaced around the Beales. Thus they become revenants, apparitions of an extinct way of life. They practically fade into translucence as the world rebuilds itself over and over all around them. Near the end, Edith looks up at the cameramen she doesn’t know and asks, “Where’d Lee go?” She’s out there, somewhere, in the real world, the one that’s swallowing up the Beales and growing over them like unpruned vines.