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Photo: Gigantic Releasing

Produced & Directed by
Morgan Dews
Released by Gigantic Releasing
USA. 76 min. Not Rated  

Women’s lives of quiet desperation historically have been pieced together from private letters and diaries. Now filmmakers rummaging through their families’ garages are finding that the women of the greatest generation embraced new recording technologies as they secretly seethed in picture perfect suburbs. The cache debut director Morgan Dews found was labeled “Must Read After My Death.”

The voice unleashed here on audio tapes is of the filmmaker’s grandmother, Allis, who was 89 when she died in 2001. In the recordings, she ruefully describes setting her cap for Charley, marrying right after the war, and fulfilling her dreams when they moved to Hartford, Connecticut to raise their four children, Anne, Bruce, Chuck, and Douglas (their missing last name is supposed to provide privacy). But as Charley traveled for business more and more, as far as Australia for as long as four months each year, the usual montage of Kodachrome birthday, vacation and holiday slides, 8 mm home movies, and photographs of a growing family are ironically contradicted by their increasingly aggravated exchange of dictaphone recordings. This is not exactly John and Abigail Adams’s fond correspondence during long absences. On one tape, the blasé Charley even has one of his paramours serenade his family.

The tensions in the open marriage frankly escalate on the recordings, along with Charley’s drinking and aggressive criticisms of her housekeeping and affairs. As the children, one by one, act out in anger, the family seeks a typical solution. They get ensnared by psychiatrists, and the film ratchets up into a scathing indictment of Freudian misogynists, enforcers of Stepford Wives conformity where everything is mother’s fault. On long car rides and in the hothouse home, Allis releases her feelings into reel-to-reel diaries, ostensibly as a therapeutic technique. But as she carefully spells out doctors’ names and turns on the machine during family eruptions, she seems to be crying out for posterity’s reckoning that her grandson fulfills.

While the shrinks are busy blaming Allis for every family failing, the children, too, become victims of the psychological establishment. Younger members of the audience will be shocked by the sad experiences of the son who, from today’s perspective, can clearly be heard struggling with dyslexia, while any baby boomer will regretfully remember how classmates with learning disabilities were shunted into special education classes. More surprising was the dismissal of Charley’s alcoholism, though it was only then beginning to be categorized as an addiction or illness.

Allis stopped venting and never spoke of Charley again after he died suddenly in 1970 at the age of 57 of an undetermined cause, making Must Read After My Death seem more like the American non-fiction equal to Chantal Akerman‘s 1975 feminist classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. While the lack of a narrator keeps Allis’s point of view central, the limited notes on screen can be frustrating. The editing powerfully emphasizes the hypocrisy the family endured—pacific images from different points in their lives counter the tapes’ emotionally violent outpourings—but it is confusing to keep track of the years and who is whom among the family members as they grow up.

While Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street and Andrew Jarecki‘s Capturing the Friedmans briefly included excerpts of raw footage of fraught family encounters, their focus was on naive and bitter sons. Dews is refreshingly respectful to his beloved grandmother for one of the most sympathetic and revealing portraits of a suburban woman in crisis ever made in any medium. Nora Lee Mandel
February 20, 2009



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