Blog #23: The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father (continued)

The Man Nobody Knew

As stated at the end of my previous entry, the patremoir elements of The Man Nobody Knew are as fascinating as the historical and political elements. The voiced part of the movie comes close to making William Colby a tragic, yet heroic figure; the unvoiced part seethes with anger and with hurt. Colby’s movie calls for the kind of detective work which Roger Porter demonstrated in Bureau of Missing Persons: Writing the Secret Lives of Fathers, a study of eighteen different books and films about paternal deception. The techniques of Colby’s telling could easily be compared to those used in My Architect, the documentary film in which Nathaniel Kahn investigates the secret life of his architect father. Or again, William Colby’s behaviour could be set against the actions of Reg Greer, intelligence officer father of Germaine Greer, and subject of Daddy, We Hardly Knew You.

Certainly, as a father story, or patremoir, The Man Nobody Knew creates many mysteries. Subtitled In Search of My Father, the movie is deliberately opaque about the personal elements of the search. The son limits his own presence to voice-overs. There were video interviews, but these were discarded in the editing process. While Carl does mention his parents’ divorce, he doesn’t tell the viewer that his father left the family for a much younger woman. While he talks about the last conversation with his father—a phone call in which his father seemed to ask for absolution—he does not mention how the last time he saw his father in New York, he crossed the street in order to avoid meeting him.

In concealing disturbing facts about the father and in occasionally verging on hagiography, The Man Nobody Knew also echoes Winston Churchill’s “The Dream,” an essay which Churchill, at the age of 72, wrote about his father. Like Churchill’s story, Colby’s telling of his father’s life is a deeply conflicted one. Where the elderly Churchill delighted in withholding his accomplishments from his father’s ghost, the 60 year old Colby gets even with his father by making William’s wife and daughter the emotional centers of The Man Nobody Knew. The documentary is anchored by several son mother interviews with a patrician Barbara Colby, interviews in which she radiates deep dignity and warmth. Powerfully, too, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father ends not with the father, but with the death of a sister. The searing last words of the movie are a dedication to Catherine Colby, dead at the age twenty-three.

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