SXSW Film Review: Dear Mr. Brody [Keith Maitland, 2021]

Philanthropy has changed a lot since the 19th century, the days of the industrial and financial barons. Unlike the security of real estate and esteem among their fellow human beings, their monetary wealth means little when the foundational goodwill of a currency cannot be sustained by people lacking access to it. In essence, especially in the case of targeted and structured variety where patronage dictates tastes, philanthropy may be nothing more than a selfish exercise that happen to coincide with the axiom that “a rising tide lifts (all) boats”.

So why not just give out money? Far less work involved, it seems.

Like everything else under the sun, it’s been tried before, and recently, too (if 50 years is a blink of an eye). One week in January 1970, a borderline schizophreniac named Michael Brody offered to open his inherited largess to anyone in the world with a story to tell. His promise grew from 25 million, 100 million, to a world-shattering 10 billion. In exchange, for a week, it seems the world froze and did nothing else but pour a bit (or sometimes more than a bit) of their minds into letters. The USPS went into over-drive and there are still to this day, approximately a hundred thousand letters written to Brody. It is by far one of the best real-life premises for a Tennant era Dr. Who episode: imagine the Doctor absorbing all that encapsulated time energy and then regenerating into a Victorian philanthropist. How (self-servingly) exciting!

Dear Mr. Brody is a project born from an accidental rediscovery of these letters, most of which were never opened. Brody himself never did individually respond to the letters. In allusion early on and later in literal diagnosis, it became a psychologically untenable proposition. Also, to be honest, what single human would wish to take on the problems of so many others? Instead, an “army” of scholars and volunteers from the Columbia University set about honoring these memories, living or dead, by finally opening and reading them upon the chance discovery.

I do find it a somewhat callous exercise to sift through the “best letters” and have them read by the writers themselves or their relations. I would surmise that even an innocuous “I hope you buy me candy” from a 2 year-old would age into a spectacular read through the magical help of 18,262.5 days. But I would not argue if the alternative was a faceless, generic narration.

What the project also reminds us of, however, is the raw power of physical writing. Even if assembled through a typewriter, the mechanical history of producing words and sentences transcends the medium. Just the sight of some letters was often emotional. It is sadly and obviously being lost with every tweet and gram. An ageless, digital, nearly sterile “I hope you buy me candy”, unless pulled from a hard drive sunk in the bottom of Lake Superior, will not rouse the same fuzzy feeling as the same in faded ink and a kindergartener’s naïve hand. In this perspective, there is always “more room at the bottom” and the film has no shortage of tear-jerkers. While it is not how Richard Feynman intended that phrase, digging for powerful/tragic stories might be the only enterprise that can never fail to succeed. As the letters expose the poignant comparative anatomy of the THEN and NOW, you may find that everything, or nothing, has changed. Whichever way you walk into these stories, I am fairly confident you will not be disappointed by reliving that one week in 1970.

Posted on by Gary in Movies, South By Southwest