By Leah Churner
Must Read After My Death
Dir. Morgan Dews, U.S., Gigantic Releasing
Documentary memoirs are getting out of hand. All too often these days what passes for nonfiction filmmaking is a training a tripod on one’s own face, and unburdening oneself with eighty minutes of babble about the motivations, misgivings, and frustrations of completing a film project. The ostensible subject is frequently the filmmaker’s parents—take Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business (1996), Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003) and Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street (2006)—but the meta-me phenomenon isn’t limited to family portraits. “Here’s how my documentary made me feel” can be applied to anything, from love interests (Ross McElwee’s Sherman's March) to zombies (Romero’s Diary of the Dead, the ironic zenith of the genre). Blow-by-blow oversharing seems to be the norm. The endorsement of kindergarten-level vanity on social networking sites (“25 Random Things About Me”) is to blame, as is the proven lucre in the Augusten Burroughs school of writing. The plummeting cost of making a film undoubtedly has something to do with it—today we face the awkward cultural position of having more storytellers than stories.
First-time filmmaker Morgan Dews bucks the narcissistic impulse in Must Read After My Death, and the result is a movie I’ll see again. The featured family’s story is chock-a-block with sexual warfare, insanity, tragedy, and yes, tortured navel-gazing. The point isn’t that people were less egotistical in the past, but rather that skeletons stayed put a while in their closets. In this film, Dews lets a dead woman speak, and doesn’t dilute her voice by rounding up a crew of speculators or adding first-person narration. (Posthumously published tell-alls are so much more captivating than memoirs of the living.)
The woman is the filmmaker’s grandmother Allis. After she died in 2001, Dews found an astonishing personal archive scattered among the basements and garages of various relatives: a suitcase of Super 8mm films, hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes (some of which were letters and others diaries made for the family psychoanalyst), and an envelope containing transcripts of all the tapes, labeled “Allis’s ‘Must read after my death’ file.” The tapes span the Sixties, when Allis, her husband, Charley, and their four children lived in Hartford, Connecticut. The audio correspondence started as a way for Allis and the kids to communicate with Charley, who frequently traveled on business. Allis’s psychoanalyst encouraged her to record a private audio diary to bring to her sessions. As life soured, there were fewer letters and more diary entries. Allis began spending more time in psychoanalysis, and started bugging the house during family arguments.
Combining the audiotapes with the home movies and photos, Dews shows his skill in the art of suggestion, carefully regulating the tension between sound and image. Allis’s voice ties the pictures together. At times, the audiovisual pairing simply correlates names and faces. Elsewhere are fiercely allegorical juxtapositions. Eight-millimeter rumpus-room histrionics accompany psycho-confessional monologue to nightmarish effect. A slow pan across an empty living room gets a laugh when accompanied with Allis’s frazzled announcement that “We can’t all go to the Institute!”
In one revealing vignette, Allis describes a falling out with her psychoanalyst. He tells her that she is culpable for the family’s problems, including the elopement of her eldest daughter with a man “from the wrong side of the tracks,” the borderline personality disorder that landed her son in the aforementioned Institute, and the misery of her marriage. According the doctor’s diagnosis, she masterminded everything with an unconscious motivation to keep her loved ones dependent. It’s a harsh pill—especially coming from a man she’s paying every week—but it’s also hard to take her account at face value. She might be hearing what she wants to hear, twisting the doctor’s actual words to reflect her perception that she is the center of gravity in the family, if not the center of the world. Allis’s habitual retreat into fantasy and endless self-searching make her look very conceited and comes at the expense of closeness with her children. It’s also true that she has a rich inner life and is highly artistic. Her diary may not improve her family, but it is her chosen creative medium. That’s why she wanted someone to read it.
Or perhaps Allis was amassing evidence to defend herself, not in divorce court, but for some higher judgment. Allis and Charley’s open marriage is an unmitigated disaster. Both saw themselves as free-spirited, practical types. Allis wanted to bear Charley’s children, and Charley was glad to oblige as long as he could come and go. After four children, though, the swinging arrangement worked out better for jet-set Charlie than Allis, who was confined to a cul-de-sac in Hartford. Charlie talks about his conquests in his letters, using innuendo, not out of sensitivity for Allis, but because he’s concerned the mailman might figure him out. Understandably both husband and wife are obsessed with third parties. Charley sends photos of himself dancing with women, and records their boozy singing. For her part, Allis does mention a man or two by name, but rarely appears in snapshots with others. It’s likely that she just didn’t get out much, and also likely that males are less inclined than females to pose for postcoital pictures with married people. It’s just as probable that Allis destroyed her own incriminating photos. The taping stops at the point of Charlie’s sudden death, and a few of her children firmly believed she’d killed him.
The only black mark on Must Read After My Death is that the audio is a mess, which may have been unavoidable considering the age of the tapes. The sound is overcorrected with noise-reduction software, so the track is full of bleeps and glitches that have the effect of nails on chalkboard. Even with this effort at cleanup, it’s difficult to discern what the speakers are saying, so the film has subtitles.
It’s exciting, on the other hand, that Dews didn’t use a camera at all. He is an illusionist: shards of memory seem to float to the surface without mediation. His objective is not to expose the malodorous underbelly of the suburbs, the status quo, the upper-middle class, marriage in the sixties, the psychiatric profession, or picket fencing. Nor is he a champion of the opposite clichés, the hazards of self-exploration and the brutality of free love. It’s a dumpster dive into history for history’s sake, and that’s about the highest compliment I know.