Saturday, February 21, 2009

Must Read After My Death

MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH (Morgan Dews, 2007)

Conservative politicians and social commentators love to hold up the good old days of post-World War II America as the golden age of family values that contemporary society has abandoned. Men were the hard-working breadwinners, and women cheerfully attended to domestic duties, be it watching over the couple's precious little angels or serving as the perfect homemaker and hostess. The film adaptation of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and the television series MAD MEN are recent examples of the many challenges to the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER myth of family life. Now comes the documentary MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH, which exposes the howling inner voices in a frayed marriage.

Filmmaker Morgan Dews' maternal grandmother left an archive of Dictaphone and tape recordings, silent 8mm home movies, photographs, and journals from the 1960s with the stipulation "must read after my death". Contrary to the smiling faces in the pictures and films, these source materials reveal a deeply unhappy home life completely unknown to Dews.

From outward appearances Charley and Allis were a typical couple. He slaved at a job that sometimes took him out of the country for four months a year. She stayed home in Hartford, Connecticut with their four children, three boys and a girl. The Dictaphone letters provided a way of communicating privately and were thought to be something the kids might cherish later, especially when Charley and Allis passed on.

While these recordings might sound like romantic correspondence, audio love letters from afar, they are anything but. Their words seep with anger and disappointment. The recordings may have permitted Charley to assert long distance control--he repeatedly stresses the importance of good housekeeping--while also revealing that he and Allis had an open marriage. Charley freely speaks of his dalliances in Australia, going so far as to have one woman sit in and appear on a recording, while Allis is more careful in describing the release she gets from being with another man.

The Dictaphone gives way to a reel-to-reel tape recorder that Allis uses to document her innermost thoughts, some of which were for the purpose of sharing with her psychiatrist. In naked detail she spells out family problems and frustrations with her own failings as a mother and a woman. The story she tells is a familiar one. Charley hates work, drinks too much, and accuses her of raising the children poorly. Allis feels trapped in having to conform to society's expectations and wishes she could run away. From what she says, her psychiatrist cautions against bucking the system but rather finding a way to meet what the culture demands from her as a wife and parent.

Credited as producer, director, writer, and editor, Dews builds MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH through the unhappy recorded voices atop counterpoint images more befitting of Norman Rockwell paintings. The obvious but effective tactic of contrasting words and visuals scrapes off the veneer of domestic bliss that people put on for the world and which gets pasted in scrapbooks and hung on walls. Dews wisely limits the narration to the Dictaphone letters and tapes to maintain the sense of being told secrets about lives of quiet desperation. Including other voices, even a neutral narrator, or perspectives with the benefit of intervening years, would break the confessional-like quality that makes the film so intimate.

MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH comes mostly from Allis' viewpoint, although Dews' editorial choices must be factored into the equation as well. Eventually one wonders how reliable her reporting is and what her purpose is in not only documenting her feelings but also in saving these recordings and desiring they be heard. It's fair to assume that she is speaking from the heart and considers these tapes to be a way for her to vent about the things that she cannot (or will not) say to her husband. Nevertheless, how calculated is it that the amassed materials provide the final word on Charley? This is her truth, but is it the truth or a full representation of it? Dews leaves these questions unanswered, which is all he can do as he tries to reconcile the grandmother he knew with the anguished woman uncovered to him.

This raises the question of what today's archived online lives consisting of blog posts, YouTube videos, and tweets will mean to future generations. For better or worse, interior lives have become more public. Will our self-penned MRS. DALLOWAY-like remembrances pull back the curtain on common human fears and desires through the ages and liberate us from social mythmaking, or is it all merely self-indulgent slop that sullies us in the memories of our descendants?

As a 1960s housewife's distressed expression of suburban ennui, MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH must be difficult for her family to hear and see, but her grandson has assembled these private thoughts into a compelling reminder that the challenges of marriage and parenting are the same now as they were in supposedly rosier times.

Grade: B

(On February 20 MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH is receiving a day-and-date opening in theaters and online from Gigantic Releasing. For those in markets where this independent film has not opened, a three-day, commercial-free, unlimited stream can be purchased at Gigantic Digital for $2.99.)

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