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Must Read After My Death
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Like "Revolutionary Road" Sans The Whimsy"
2 stars

Among the strangest offshoots of the recent boom in documentary filmmaking has been the subgenre of films in which people willingly expose dark family secrets and unrest in an effort to free themselves of the burdens of their horrific upbringings and hopefully snag an award or two at Sundance for their efforts. As someone who has always preferred to repress such angst--after all, who really needs a stomach lining in this day and age?--I have always wondered about what compels people to make such films and what compels people to watch them but as such critically acclaimed works as “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Tarnation” and “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” have demonstrated in recent years, there are people out there willing to display their dirty laundry for all to see and there are other people out there willing to gawk at it for 90 minutes or so. The latest example of this brand of confessional filmmaking is “Must Read After My Death,” a formally intriguing but incredibly depressing examination of a seemingly perfect Sixties-era American family self-destructing before our eyes and ears.

Cobbled together from photos, home movies and, most significantly, hours and hours of Dictaphone recordings and audio tapes, director Morgan Dews offers us a front-row seat to the spectacle of the disintegration of the marriage of his grandparents, Charley and Allis (the latter of who secretly kept a hold of all of the material until it was discovered by Dews after her death in 2001). When they met in the late 1940’s, a time when both were married to others, they instantly fell in love and Allis, who until then had been a free-spirited world traveler who spoke four languages and prided herself as being a non-conformist, cheerfully decided to become the picture-perfect ideal of a Fifties-era housewife by raising three sons and a daughter. Unfortunately, reality soon began to creep in and while Charley was off traveling the world as part of his job (sending Dictaphone records home as audio letters to the family), Allis was becoming more and more disenchanted with her position in life. Making things even more difficult was the fact that she and Charley had an “open” marriage, though this appears to have been an arrangement that proved to be more beneficial for Charley (who brags about conquests in his recordings) than for the one stuck at home with the kids. Even after Charley stops traveling, however, the tensions continue at home and through the recordings (which continued thanks to the advent of a portable recorder) juxtaposed with the seemingly happy home movies, we are privy to any number of bitter outbursts and tearful recriminations that threaten both the marriage, Allis’ well-being (she goes to a psychiatrist who essentially tells her that all of the problems with her marriage and children are entirely fault but counsels her to stick around when she offers to leave for the good of her kids) and the emotional health of the children who are unfortunately trapped in the middle of the wreckage.

While it is virtually impossible not to be moved by the events captured in this film, I have to admit that both my sympathies and patience began to run thin as the unending array of miseries unspoiled before my eyes because the questions I was most interested in having answered were being ignored. Since we don’t have any working knowledge of who Charley and Allis really were as people before they met, we don’t get any real sense of how they changed as people and drifted apart to get to where they are when we see and hear them. (Oddly enough, this is one of the problems that I had with “Revolutionary Road,” a film that, while fictional, is strikingly similar in many ways to this one.) We never get a chance to explore what compelled Allis to continue to make these recordings, especially the ones that have clearly been recorded surreptitiously, or what drove her to carefully and secretly catalogue and archive material that is so chock-full of nastiness, cruelty and flat-out emotional abuse for so many years or why she left it to be discovered for family members after her passing. Most importantly and significantly, I never got a sense of why Dews was trying to say by exposing this sad and theoretically personal story to the world, except to remind us once again that (Spoiler Alert!) dark and ugly things can be found beyond the white picket fences and well-manicured lawns of suburban America. By the end of the film, the only member of the family that I still felt any empathy for was daughter Anne and this is because got the hell out of that toxic environment as soon as she could with what I presume to be only minor emotional scarring.

In order to expose the film to the widest possible audience, an increasingly difficult task these days, the producers of “Must Read After My Death” is getting a two-pronged release designed to maximize its impact. Starting today, it will be opening in New York and Los Angeles for normal theatrical engagements. At the same time, however, it will be made available for digital download at the Gigantic Digital website located at www.giganticdigital.com. From an economic standpoint, this type of distribution makes sense--it allows the film to be seen in places that normally don’t get to see smaller indie fare along these lines and it saves the producers the expense of making prints. It also makes sense from another standpoint--after seeing this film, you will probably be in immediate need of a drink and a shower and by watching it at home, both should presumably be close at hand.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18019&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/20/09 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/02/09 Rhonda Bariff very, very interesting film ultimately life-afirming 4 stars
2/21/09 Margaret Rak Your reviewer completely misses the point of the cultural trap in which Allis was caught 5 stars
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  DVD: 10-Nov-2009


  DVD: 10-Nov-2009

Directed by
  Morgan Dews

Written by
  Morgan Dews


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