That Summer

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Göran Olsson

May 25, 2018 Web Exclusive
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A pair of raccoons briefly scuffle outside, tumbling like silent movie clowns in front of a still film camera. An orange tabby gracefully hops down from a tree branch, another animal tenant at Grey Gardens. Through the window a pair of women, as unkempt as the raccoons and as dignified as that cat, are chatting away for a documentary crew’s benefit. “Let’s make it an honest day, shall we,” one of them sighs. Considering the shambles these women live in and their complete lack of TMI filters, it seems like every day is an honest day for them.

For fans of camp culture and harrowing cinema verite, these two bickering & blinkered grand dames are instantly familiar: The Beales of Grey Gardens. “Big” Edie  Beale and “Little” Edie Beale, a mother-daughter duo who were relatives of Jackie Onassis and the subjects of a legendary 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles. Grey Gardens is an iconic film, offering up a trainwreck spectacle of watching two scions from a grand American family choosing to live in near-abject squalor. But even more affecting than the images of raccoons running rampant in their home is the relationship between the Beales: two broken people living in their own private universe.

Grey Gardens is such a singular and memorable work that it’s hard for any Beale-related material to measure up to it. Göran Olsson’s That Summer serves as a kind of prequel to the Maysles documentary. Lee Radziwell, a cousin of the Beales, approached photographer Peter Beard to help her make a film about her growing up in Long Island. Part of that project involved filming her cousins; clearly recognizing storytelling gold, Beard and Radziwell focused most of their film on capturing the Beales in action. Among the film crew working with Beard in 1972 were the Maysles brothers, who would return three years later to make their own document of life at Grey Gardens.

Olsson’s documentary mostly consists of the footage Beard shot for that project. It’s a candid portrait of the duo that comes across as a lighter version of Grey Gardens. Both Beales seem sharper and more guarded on camera in 1972 than they do in 1975; perhaps the experience of working with Beard taught them to leave their guard down, allowing the Maysles to later catch them in all their tragicomic glory.

Bookending the film is Beard himself, who essentially takes us on a tour of his backpages. Supplemented by footage shot by Beard, Andy Warhol, and Jonas Mekas, we see Beard looking back on his time in Montauk. We see him on the beach with Warhol, hanging out with Mick and Bianca Jagger, and reflecting on photographs of Truman Capote and Iman. We also catch intriguing glimpses of Beard’s African photography: striking photos of rhinos and surging herds of elephants. “The elephants are looking for trees on the way to Heaven,” an off-camera Beard remarks, looking at a photo of hundreds of elephants trampling across a cracked & dry desert floor.

The Beard bookends stand out from the rest of the film, not just because they’re the only time we’re not focusing on the Beales but because of the use of modern footage, extensive voiceovers from Beard, and a more dynamic visual style (shifting from Beard to Mekas to Warhol footage, along with montages of Beard’s detailed diary pages and photos).

The bookends also stand out because they point to the biggest problem that plagues Olsson’s film: a near-total lack of context. If you don’t know who Peter Beard or the Beales are, you are shit out of luck: That Summer doesn’t bring you up to speed on any of its subjects. Offering too context is a common documentary pitfall, but That Summer suffers from the reverse. By not offering any backstory or information about who these people are, it makes it hard for anyone who isn’t already a Grey Gardens aficionado to give a shit about what they’re seeing. The footage is interesting on its own, sure, but a lot of the impact is lost if you don’t know the story behind it.

What’s doubly frustrating about That Summer is that Beard comes across as a worthy subject in his own right: you almost wish the movie was about him. What’s his deal? How did he become such a nexus point in 60’s culture that he would regularly pal around with Warhol, Capote, and the Jaggers? The bookends to Olsson’s movie gives us a glimpse of an extroverted, social gadfly artist with an intriguing body of work. It offers up a host of questions that go unanswered, leaving us instead to spend more time at a place that’s already been preserved in cinematic amber. If only it spent more time excavating a different piece of history.

(www.ifcfilms.com/films/that-summer)

Author rating: 5/10

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