Must Read After My Death

"Excellent"

Must Read After My Death Review


A polarizing family secrets drama whose moment of revelation is continually diverted in favor of enticing new fragments of the truth, Must Read After My Death is a documentary that does its best to get at the truth, no matter how frustratingly far away that truth insists on receding. Watching it is like receiving a spooky postcard from the shiny-on-the-outside postwar American suburbs, whose text reveals the fever-pitch dreams, disappointment, and madness roiling underneath.

Filmmaker Morgan Dews stumbled across an amazing discovery in 2001, after his grandmother Allis died. She left behind a "Must Read After My Death" file, a heaping treasure trove containing hundreds of hours of 8mm home movies, Dictaphone recordings, and reel-to-reel diaries chronicling her turbulent marriage to Morgan's grandfather Charley. The resulting film could have easily felt like a desperate artist airing the family laundry for sensationalism, but Dews has a couple things in his favor. For one: By labeling the material in this fashion, Allis clearly wanted it to be read. For another: Dews resists the temptation to stack the deck by resorting to anything but the primary material. Except for the occasional subtitle (and those are usually just used to clarify poor recordings), this is all his grandparents' story.

The dominant character here is Charley, who comes off in his Dictaphone letters to Allis as a charming rascal, the kind of smooth operator who flitted through the cocktail parties of the postwar suburban landscape with a twinkle and a joke; equally at home in the boardroom or the nearest Playboy Club. His job had him traveling to Australia 16 weeks a year, so he and Allis and the four kids sent the Dictaphone letters back and forth as a way of keeping in touch. And until you hear him mention for the second, third, and fourth time that everything in the house must be kept absolutely spotless for his return, it all seems quite pleasant and normal. Then the shadows begin to creep over the family portrait.

Dews assembles the film as a sort of verite mosaic as it goes through the 1960s and '70s, picking up a particularly potent kick after 1965, when Allis began keeping her reel-to-reel diary. While Dews dances away from trying to create real "gotcha" moments, by reading between the lines some surprising patterns emerge, the very least of which appears to be a long legacy of partner-swapping. It's never quite spelled out, but in between Charley's roguish tales and their frequent references to "these things" and "what we believe," it seems there was much more carnal adventurousness going on than most people would want to discover about their grandparents. Allis appears more than willing to go along with all of it, within limits ("I don't care what he does, I just don't want him to pay for it").

In between Charley's overbearing rage and Allis' Münchausen-esque fretting over the children -- three boys, one girl -- there's also a dark thread of overwrought psychotherapy undergirding the family's fractured and chaotic life. An oft-discussed Dr. Lenn looms in the background as one of those over-involved therapists who practically becomes a seventh member of the family. He also seemed to have no problem choosing sides, as he and Charley tag-team a nervously fragile Allis in an unctuously patriarchal browbeating that elicits even more lacerating self-recrimination.

Every family has its secrets, and for the most part, Dews can only tease at them here. But what he does find is something of a revelation, even to those who have never met these people. For sure, there's a voyeuristic element to the film, but it's more in the manner of a This American Life, where the prevailing mood is haunting sadness instead of tabloid confessional. Dews also avoids the tabloid trap by refusing to classify those involved as victims or villains, and he makes no pretense at being able to discover exactly what did or didn't happen. Watching Must Read After My Death is like opening a never-seen family album full of pictures and people you never wanted to know about, yet can't stop flipping the pages to see more images of them.

Stand up so the class can hear.



Must Read After My Death

Facts and Figures

Run time: 73 mins

In Theaters: Sunday 1st June 2008

Distributed by: Gigantic Releasing

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 45 Rotten: 5

IMDB: 6.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Morgan Dews

Producer: Morgan Dews, Lisa Palmer Bourke

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