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Gothic Camp: The Beales of East Hampton

By Kelly Coyne
Los Angeles Review of Books

Spectacle of Property (John David Rhodes)Over 40 years after its premiere, Grey Gardens continues to assert its significance in American culture, not only through news surrounding the house itself, but also in the story’s numerous adaptations. In 2015, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen spoofed the documentary in “Sandy Passage,” an episode of Documentary Now!; in 2009, Drew Barrymore starred in Patricia Rozema and Michael Sucsy’s HBO adaptation of the documentary; in 2006, Grey Gardens, the musical, opened on Broadway. It is regularly staged by theaters across the country.

What is the reason for such enduring fascination? In Spectacle of Property, Rhodes, a professor of film at Cambridge, asks: “Is this a domestic melodrama, shot through with intergenerational mother-daughter conflict? Is it an exercise in gothic horror, a story about a big house and its historical hauntings?” An adept exploration of how identities are constituted by domestic space, Rhodes’s book covers films, both Hollywood and art house, from Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. The book describes our captivation with certain houses, examining houses’ ability to induce nostalgia and competition, the anxieties of class and race and gender they express, and the histories they contain. For Rhodes, showing the house-human relationship on film casts its attendant concerns into even sharper clarity.

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Spectacle of Property