Grey Gardens and the Problem of Objectivity

Notes on the Ethics of Observational Documentary

in Projections

This article turns to the Maysles brothers’ 1975 film Grey Gardens to problematize the philosophical assumptions at work in debates about objectivity and direct cinema. With a suitable picture of documentary objectivity we can avoid endorsing the claim that no film can be objective or the corollary that only documentaries that reflexively acknowledge the biases of their makers can succeed aesthetically or ethically. Against critics who have attacked Grey Gardens for its problematic claims to objectivity as well as theorists defending it for how it undermines objectivity, I argue that the film’s objective treatment of its subjects is part of its aesthetic and ethical achievement. In the context of observational documentary, being objective does not mean taking a purely dispassionate stance toward one’s subjects, but treating them without prejudice or moralism and letting them reveal themselves.