February
21st 2009
“Must Read After My Death”

Posted under: American history, art, women's history

wingedskullstoneHere’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 bourgeoisieYou 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!

6 Comments »

6 Responses to ““Must Read After My Death””

  1. Lilian Nattel on 21 Feb 2009 at 8:45 am #

    I never understood “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Either they’re dust or they are in a happy place where earthly doings are amusingly trivial. But in this particular case, I think that his gm would be pleased. She sounds like a frustrated person who never had a chance to exercise her abilities. At least her grandson did something with the material she left. He read her.

  2. Professor Zero on 21 Feb 2009 at 11:50 am #

    I actually once met a professor and department chair who refused to criticize in any way the work of scholars who were already dead, because they were dead and could not respond.

  3. Historiann on 21 Feb 2009 at 11:55 am #

    Prof. Z–that’s totally asinine! (Or, maybe that guy was just lazy?)

  4. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    Yeah, most historians get paid to read dead people’s mail (as I sometimes remind my bemused students) with far less provocation and implicit injunction than “must read after my death” conveys. Anyone who keeps an archive of personal papers must wonder what’s going to happen to it and with it down the line, But if you keep it, I guess that’s a form of implicit release to posterity. And who has never wondered, having published a carefully-nuanced narrative or interpretation of something long past, what it would be like if a historical actor/informant emerged right there from a poof of smoke to say “never happened that way, this scholar must be nuts…?”

  5. Buster on 21 Feb 2009 at 2:42 pm #

    Just watched the trailer. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8phF9xpI7Jk) I think I actually agree with Dargis, sort of. Not that one shouldn’t make use of the personal materials of dead people. But rather that the way this “repackaging” comes out is particularly airless and exploits the family’s life and troubles for contemporary viewers’ desire for something a little more gut-wrenching than anything else they’ve ever seen.

    Maybe the actual film is more complicated than the trailer. I’m not sure if I have the patience to find out.

  6. Sisyphus on 22 Feb 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    There was also that move “Tarnation,” which a kid made for $250 on his Apple computer —- it put together all of his family home movies to tell the story of his mother’s mental illness, which garnered a lot of controversy about the ethics of presenting it, but mainly got praise for being so stylistically wonderful and beautiful. I didn’t see it (I am sooo behind on my movie-watching! I hope to make it to the invention of color soon!) but I heard the film was great.