Here’s a review of a new movie, “Must Read After My Death,” in which reviewer Manohla Dargis suggests that it “raises unsettling questions about the erosion of the private sphere:”
After his maternal grandmother died in 2001, the director Morgan Dews learned she had left behind a rich archive in the form of eight-millimeter films, reel-to-reel recordings and a file of written materials labeled “Must Read After My Death.” Mr. Dews not only followed these instructions, he also made the materials his own, artfully piecing them together to create an alternately fascinating and disquietingly intimate portrait of a 1960s American family falling apart.
The results, at least initially, make for absorbing viewing and listening. The grandmother, Allis, was independent minded and, to judge from her loudly voiced complaints, gravely unhappy. Along with her husband, Charley, though often without him — his long, work-related absences were one source of her discontent — she was raising four children in suburban Connecticut. As a way for everyone to keep in touch while Charlie traveled, the family began to make and exchange recorded messages. As the children grew older, however, Allis’s restless agitation took on an air of desperation, even panic. There were freakouts and breakdowns, Allis started seeing a psychiatrist, and, through it all, the family members continued to make recordings, sharing their hearts and fears with one another and, increasingly, their rage.
Dargis rightly points out that documentaries based on crumbling families are nothing new–she mentions movies like “Capturing the Friedmans,” and in the age of reality TV, the revelations in this film probably won’t strike most viewers as terribly shocking. Dargis writes that in the end, “while I admire how Mr. Dews has constructed his movie on a formal level, I can’t help but wonder how his grandmother would feel if she knew her family’s trauma has been repackaged for our queasy consumption.”
Well, as a historian who is in the business of revealing all sorts of family and personal secrets (albeit about subjects who have been dead longer than Allis), and whose job demands that I say and write all kinds of terrible things about the dead, this question seems overly solicitous. Someone who left reels and reels of family movies and audio tapes, and who has packed them all up with a file labeled “Must Read After My Death,” has left her own monument for posterity. Were I to come across a file box with contents like this in an archive or museum, I would see it as a plea from the donor that the contents be studied and commemorated somehow. (Fellow scholars, confess: wouldn’t you feel that way, too?) Dews’ movie is a tribute to his grandmother and a fulfillment of her wishes, from one filmmaker to another. This particular movie or version of family life may not be what other living family members wanted–but that’s a separate question. The dead are beyond embarrassment, humiliation, or regret.
As I read this review, the TV show I kept thinking about was “An American Family,” the 1973 PBS miniseries about the Loud family, which I think would actually look much more shocking and disturbing than most of the cheap and predictable reality TV shows today. Seriously–Pat Loud asked her husband Bill for a divorce on camera, and eldest son Lance Loud wore lipstick and women’s clothes on camera. (No, I never saw it at the time–I was alive but far, far too young. But I remember that the Louds continued to be a sensation through the 1970s.) You want to épater la bourgeoisie? You could do worse than watch that thirty-six year old TV show. (I couldn’t find any clips, but you can see the 1983 HBO retrospective of the series starting here at YouTube, which features lots of 1973 shots juxtaposed with new interviews of the family 10 years later.)
Or, since it’s the weekend, you could just dial up this happy family and enjoy!