Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 12:56 pm 
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Dirty linen is not enough

The grandson of the matriarch of this dysfunctional family found her cache of Dictaphone, tape, and transcript documents a few years ago and took her "must" to mean exposure not just for family members but anyone who goes to New York or Los Angeles theaters or has access to pay-for-view television. His other mistake is assuming not "interfering" was a good idea when this data is so fragmentary and skewed. Its chronicle of desperate troubles in the posh suburbia of Hartford, Connecticut in the Fifties and Sixties is unfair and incomplete. What about the good days? What about the kids' schools, their friends, their talents and interests? Snapshots and scratchy recordings aren't enough. That's why people write books, and make good documentaries, ones that flesh out lives in three dimensions and specific detail.

Dews adds subtitles throughout to compensate for the bad sound quality (worse in the Sixties tapes, it's interesting to note, than the earlier Dictaphone recordings). But he has no interviews or voice-overs, only short lines of text about deaths, marriages, and what the surviving offspring are doing now. Capturing the Friedmans explained and analyzed too much, even what it could not really know. But this arrangement of first cheerful, later whiny, finally hysterical recordings as background for a farrago of inane, conventional amateur footage of parties and holiday times, cries out for explanation and commentary.

Allis was married before and lived in Europe; never finished collage (she thinks her husband couldn't have stood that, since he hadn't gone); says, but does not prove, that she spoke four languages. She was, by her standards anyway and the conformist modalities of the Forties and Fifties, an unconventional woman. She wanted to live with Charley (their family name is kept secret) and bear him children in a little house with a white picket fence. She accepted their having an "open" marriage, though that mostly benefited Charley, whose insurance job involved a large chunk of the year spent in Australia. The "agreement" didn't do Allis much good, but was license for Charley to tell her in his recordings about "interesting" women and "good dancers" he found in his lengthy absences. He even has the insensitivity to have one of his ladies come on and sing "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" on a recording he sends back to Hartford. He's a real piece of work.

Balding and plain-looking, with big-framed specs and perpetual ciggy, Charley may seem an unlikely Lothario. His philandering seems to grow out of massive insecurity, going by Allis' analysis and a later shrink's comment. Be that as it may, he emerges as a Class A prick. When he was home, he drank (and smoked heavily) and he and Allis fought. Charley found constant fault with Allis' housekeeping and accounting. His endless railing over untidy bedrooms, a shrink theorizes, was a transposed compensation for his own unbridled sexual behavior. Anne, the eldest child (the filmmaker's mother), did the smart thing and fled home at seventeen and married. The three boys of necessity stayed and festered. But unfortunately we learn very little about them, because Allis and Charley see them only as disciplinary and educational problems, and that's all we get to hear about. The oldest boy dies in a car accident in his first year of college. The middle boy has an anger problem and is sent for months to a mental institution (at fourteen -- breaking the institution's own rules) at the whim of the infamous Dr. Lenn.

This is where we see the Douglas Sirk, Revolutionary Road world of the Fifties (and unliberated Sixties) emerging, in which psychiatrists are embraced as a ray of hope with very little understanding of their limitations and dangers. Allis quotes Lenn over and over and takes him as an authority even as he blames everything on her. Like Richard Yates' novels, this shows what Women's Liberation was all about.

Not long after eldest son Chuck's tragic death on the road as a college freshman, dad Charley, then fifty-something, drops dead at home; the circumstances are mysterious and suspicious, and in Allis's lurid taped musings suicide or murder come up as possibilities. Almost immediately, Allis sells the house and moves to a cabin in New England where a brief film of her smiling and dancing suggests she was happy. Of course all the film footage throughout the years shows the family smiling and "happy." Anyway, she lived there as a single woman for thirty years, did volunteer work, and was an adoring grandmother to the maker of this film.

Growing up in a well-off white suburb myself in a family where drinking and paternal absences and parental squabbling took their psychological toll, I can easily relate to this family's travails. But when Allis wails that she needs something to do to make herself feel useful and says she's not a housewife, I remember my mother's significant accomplishments, and mine and my sister's, and our father's depth of culture, and sensitivities he had that this preening Babbit utterly lacks. But a rush to judgment is wrong: we simply need to know more about everybody than these recordings and home movies can provide. Others have mentioned the family documentary Surfwise, which has another macho, controlling dad. But that was a family that was very much, too much, together; and the documentary is one in whose making the whole family participated with a rich array of updates this narrow editing job quite lacks.

Must Read After My Death is not as interesting as Dews and many reviewers, seduced by its emotionally sordid "revelations," seem to think. Much too much information is missing. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, we need to know more to appreciate that fact.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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