A drunk, tomcatting father, an unfulfilled, restless mother and four children who pay the price. The family in filmmaker Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death could have been just another unhappy family locked away inside their Hartford, Conn. colonial. Except that Dews’ grandmother Allis channeled her frustration and abject happiness into the kind of obsessive documentation that would have done Richard Nixon proud.
Some families bequeath photo albums to the next generation, but Allis, who died in 2001 and was the architect of her family’s history throughout the 1950s and ’60s, bequeathed hours and hours of voice recordings and hundreds of 8mm home movies to her grandson Morgan Dews. He clearly saw the psychological mother lode locked inside this archeology of family. And so he did what any 21st-century documentarian would: He made a family memoir. Must Read After My Death is awash in heartbreak and tragedy of the most quotidian kind, interweaving those audio and home movie artifacts to show the slow dissolution of a marriage and the toxic effect of Allis and her husband Charley’s unhappiness on their children Chuck, Bruce, Douglas and Anne. At the story’s center is Aliss, a worldly nonconformist whose marriage to businessman Charley is narrated in excruciating, often skin-crawling detail. Saccharine affection coexists with the creepy dynamics of their open marriage in the dictaphone tapes that they send back and forth from Charley’s frequent extended work trips to Australia. Upon Charley’s return and the family’s move to Hartford, the veneer of joviality begins to peel away. Allis records it all: shrieking fights, dank sexual confessions, suicidal self-doubt. The saddest element of Must Read is the sense that the children are hostage to their parents’ dysfunction. A mysterious Dr. Lenn emerges and counsels Allis to let her husband make the decisions in the family, commits one of their sons to a mental institution and recommends Allis get on with the vital business of planning dinner parties. As much as it is a peek behind the closed doors of a marriage, Must Read After My Death is a grotesque glimpse into how a medley of therapists operating from their own prejudices did more to hinder than help this unhappy family.
Memoir films have run the gamut, from brutal scab-picking in Tarnation to fraternal hagiography in My Architect and queasy revelation in Capturing the Friedmans. Must Read After My Death combines elements of all of those in its raw exegesis of a mother whose nascent feminist consciousness is smothered by her husband and by a raft of therapists who instill in her the party line of the ’60s: that her children have been ruined and that it’s her fault.
In what becomes the disconcerting contrapuntal rhythm of the film, rage and hopelessness are set against the banality of home movies: the children at the zoo, a car stuck in snow, dinner parties and picnics. At times the images are ripe with subtext and indicative of the family’s woes. But more often there is an aching melancholy and pathos at the truth conveyed in those banal and seemingly happy home movies, that every family is a kind of mirage: one vision sold to the outside world and another hidden away.
Must Read After My Death
Directed by Morgan Dews
At Quad Cinemas and via Gigantic Digital at www.giganticdigital.com
Running Time: 73 min.
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