If Tolstoy had lived in our time, he might have expanded on his famed quote from Anna Karenina to note that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ... and that's demonstrated through their documentary. Following in the archival-confessional mold of such documentaries as Tarnation and Capturing the Friedmans, filmmaker Morgan Dews has created Must Read After My Death -- or, rather, assembled it, from decades of photographs and home movies and Dictaphone recordings found in his grandmother's home after her passing. Dews doesn't interject himself into this material; at the same time, he's made the decisions that shape it -- the inclusions, the deletions, the things we linger on, the things elided over.
Must Read After My Death is, first and foremost, a portrait of the marriage between Allis and Charlie. Allis is a mother and home maker, but the need to be perfect chances at her, chokes her; Charley travels for work, a charmer and hearty man's man whose easy charm makes it entirely too easy to ignore his family. Hoping to make Charley's distance more tolerable -- or, at least, more entertaining -- the family purchased a Dictaphone, and sent audio recordings back and forth. These recordings -- made in quiet contemplation or moments of anger, some heavy with things unsaid, some thick with the sounds of rage and desperation -- are the aching heart and wounded soul of the film.
But it's dismissing Dews's accomplishment and eye to simply suggest that Must Read After My Death is some happy accident cobbled together from found footage and primal screams. As the children -- Anne, Bruce, Chuck and Douglas -- grow, they speak out on the Dictaphone recordings as well, or they're mentioned as topics of concern. Allis even keeps using the Dictaphone after Charley returns from his travels -- in part as a therapeutic aid, but possibly in part because it must have been nice to know someone was listening.
And we listen; sound designed and composer Paul Damian Hogan mixes original compositions with the found tapes, as Dews cuts and re-cuts home movies and photographs over the words and score; the end effect is as mesmerizing as it is uncomfortable. Some will sneer that pretty much anyone could root around in their attic and make a similar documentary -- and yet, Dews is hardly 'anyone,' and the care and concern he puts into shaping this film out of hundreds of hours of material is as careful and close as the attention a sculptor uses to coax a graceful sculpture that moves our souls out of a much larger mass of silent stone.
Much like Mad Men or Far From Heaven, Must Read After My Death shows the real feelings and hidden problems lurking behind the horn rim glasses and happy dinner parties of prosperous post-war America; and yet, the people in Must Read After My Death were and are real. Must Read After My Death would probably be easier to take if it was fictional; we wouldn't worry so much about the cracks of sorrow in Allis's voice, or come to hate the boom of rage in Charley's shouts. In a time when memoirs and tell-all books clot the shelves, the effort and skill evident in crafting the visual flow and soundscapes of Must Read After My Death make it a welcome reminder of the difference between true confessions and true art.