The story behind Must Read After My Death is fascinating. Filmmaker Morgan Dews found boxes of home movies and audiotapes following the death of his grandmother Allis in 2001. Since the 1960's, she'd been documenting her own life, as well as the lives of her husband Charley and their four children. However, these were not the typical recorded memories you'd expect to find stashed away in your grandparents' attic. Instead, Allis recorded just about everything - even stuff that was intensely personal and painful. Recognizing that it was a rare documentation of a genuine life (and not just the sunny parts), Dews assembled the findings into a feature-length film that offers one of the most gut-wrenching portraits of family dysfunction ever to hit a movie screen.
Living in Hartford, Connecticut, Allis and Charley shared a complicated marriage. His job took him to Australia for four months every year, and so the couple invested in a Dictaphone machine to send messages back and forth. There was a certain amount of openness in the marriage, with Charley occasionally reporting back about his dalliances, and even expressing hope that Allis has been able to find a little outside gratification of her own. As the tapes play over the 8mm home movie footage, we learn that Charley was an uptight man, prone to irrational flipping out when the children failed to keep their rooms clean. Allis, meanwhile, roundly rejected the stereotypical roles she was expected to play as a suburban wife and mother. She just flat-out was not interested in following the norm.
The four children are heard on the recordings as well. As a result of being raised in a home where there was parental tension, jealousy, and non-conformity, the kids had their issues, to say the least. Most notably, there was Bruce, who developed a nasty temper, often lashing out aggressively and bitterly toward his parents. (In fairness, the other children had their outbursts as well.) Given some poor advice by the doctors and psychiatrists on whom they relied, Allis and Charley coped with the problem by having Bruce committed to a mental health institution, which only seemed to make things worse. Most revealing in Must Read After My Death is the revelation of how the family was impacted by Bruce's instability. Allis begins bringing her marital dissatisfaction into sessions with the primary psychiatrist, and you sense the desperation that gripped the entire family.
The documentary's approach is really unique. Morgan Dews has created a collage of dysfunction. There's no narration, no talking head interviews - just an occasional bit of text to set the stage. The home movies we watch offer a stark contrast to the audio recordings. What Dews saw - and what we see - are home movies of a family traveling, playing in the pool, lounging around the house, etc. The audio is a whole other ballgame. There are fights, tantrums, declarations of purpose, emotional outbursts, attempts at reconciliation and understanding, and confessions. What from the outside must have looked like a normal family was, in fact, a group of people struggling to deal with a few very substantial problems.
The obvious comparison here is to Andrew Jarecki's brilliant 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans. Both pictures benefited from subjects who obsessively recorded their own existence, even in times when most of us would turn the camera or tape recorder off. That film had the added benefit of documenting a real-life criminal trial with a hazy outcome. While Must Read After My Death lacks that kind of central, all-encompassing centerpiece, it nevertheless works as a really gripping and hypnotic exploration of the troubles that hide behind a seemingly happy family façade. We all know that sometimes the most normal looking people have skeletons in their closets, but rarely do we get to open the door and take a peek at them.
While undeniably riveting, I think the film might have benefited slightly from a bit more explanatory text. Although the recordings are generally grouped by topic, they span a period of months and years. At times, it can be just a bit confusing to know when events take place relative to other events. You never get lost - Dews has really done a masterful job of assembling hundreds of recordings into a coherent whole - yet it can occasionally be difficult to pinpoint exactly how much time has elapsed between one thing and the next. This is a very minor criticism, though.
It’s worth noting that while Must Read After My Death is essentially about dysfunction, you still get the very strong impression that there was a lot of love in the family. They had their problems (and at times were nearly torn apart by them) and yet they were distinctly a clan. I suspect Dews' motivation in making this movie was not to lay bare his family, but rather to suggest that no matter what happens within the walls of your home, the sense of lineage and heritage remains strong.
Must Read After My Death opens in limited release on Feb. 20. However, if it doesn't play in your area, you can watch the movie online at one of my favorite new websites, Gigantic Digital (www.giganticdigital.com), beginning that same date. For the low price of $2.99, you can buy a three-day pass to view the movie online as many times as you'd like within that window. This marked the third movie I have watched from the site, and the sound/picture quality is excellent. Gigantic Digital streams the films in up to HD quality, depending upon the user's available bandwidth and equipment set-up. Best of all, it gives viewers instant access to independent films that may not reach their local theaters - all for a price lower than you'd pay to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
( out of four)
Must Read After My Death is unrated but contains adult language and subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 16 minutes.
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