A specialty of playwrights since Eugene O’Neill, the break-up of an American family is never a pretty sight, and it takes on an especially morose tone in Morgan Dews’ “Must Read After My Death.” As in “Capturing the Friedmans,” this expose of Dews’ grandmother and her disastrous home front is built with the materials of found domestic visual and audio footage, but is neither as toxic, memorable nor ethically dubious. Some auds may feel they’re unwilling voyeurs to others’ miseries; after a solid run through top-rate fests, muted theatrical play is certain in the current bear market for docu features.
Dews came across his grandmother Allis’ media stash of carefully collected tapes, Dictaphone recordings and home movies at the time of her death in 2001, and realized the contents revealed trying family dramas (though nothing quite as awful as those laid bare in “Friedmans”).
A maker of short films based partly in Barcelona, Dews decided to marry the audio recordings made by Allis (whose last name, as well as those in the rest of the family, have been left off to preserve a modicum of anonymity) with her home footage, with the result that he rightly provides Allis status as co-filmmaker, credited on-screen with camera and sound.
Allis met Charley when both were married to others, and made the unconventional choice in the late ‘40s to have an open marriage. In truth, this turns out to have been much more Charley’s idea than Allis’, although she continuously prides herself on being a non-conformist. At the same time, however, she tries to be the picture of the ideal ‘50s housewife, raising three boys and one girl.
Early passages show Charley, an insurance exec, spending lots of time on the road on business, sometimes as far away as Oz, while Allis (once a globetrotter herself, and fluent in four languages) is stuck at home. The jarring effect of hearing Charley’s Dictaphone recordings (made as audio “letters” he would send home during trips), relating his various escapades with women, establishes the emerging theme: Open marriages are generally recipes for disaster, especially when they’re “open” on one side only.
The viewer comes to realize that Allis was exceptionally savvy, and even a bit sneaky, keeping her sound recording devices running during household squabbles. (The family Dictaphone was replaced by a tape recorder in 1965, allowing for more mobility, and more revelations.) Charley’s outbursts at Allis’ sloppy housekeeping smack of concealing guilt about the stark imbalance in their lives, as well as his alienation from his four kids.
Daughter Anne is the most indistinct of the group, since she leaves at 15. While brothers Bruce and Douglas manage as best they can, their other bro Chuck is a case of a downfall child. Afflicted with dyslexia before it could be medically diagnosed, Chuck had reading problems that set off a chain of emotional issues that build in the film’s sad final section.
Coda, though, leaves Allis in her final years in a state of a certain fulfillment, which is visible in a few family photos.
Allis’ cut-off life, detoured from her youth’s intellectual adventures into a soured marriage, is made into something of worth by the film itself. Dews works the footage over and over, repeating key moments and images, running them in ultra slo-mo, working with composer and sound designer Albrecht Kunze to layer the footage with a sense of a dreamt past.
The effect is to turn straightforward homemovie material into visual art, perhaps a grandson’s way of making something meaningful of his grandmother’s life.