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. Continue Reading »