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Must Read After My Death

Movie Review


Published February 18, 2009 at 6:20 a.m.

I’m not sure where you spent this past weekend, but I’ve just returned from an invigorating trip to the future. That’s right. The bad news? Still no flying cars. The good news? Independent film is alive and well, though most of the new releases don’t open at your local cineplex. They open on your computer.

Recently an email caught my eye. It was from a former Miramax distribution head named Mark Lipsky, and its subject line read, “R.I.P. Independent Film.” “Unless a film is overstuffed with movie stars or the director is internationally renowned or the distributor is backed by tens of millions in marketing dollars or the film has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes,” Mr. Lipsky lamented, an independent production stands little chance of finding an audience.

“It’s been a bloody and painful downward spiral for the past decade and the final nail has been driven into the coffin,” he continued, “unless a compassionate and open-minded media can summon the courage to forgo the familiar and safe and embrace the future.”

It might have been nice if he’d thrown in “devilishly handsome” or even “penetratingly insightful,” but I decided to let that pass. After all, we here at Seven Days are nothing if not compassionate and open minded. So I asked Mr. Lipsky about his vision, the “pioneering new method for independent film distribution that Gigantic Releasing will introduce with [its] February 20 national release of director Morgan Dews’ award-winning Must Read After My Death.”

On that date, Lipsky explained, “Dews’ deeply moving documentary will open in theaters in New York and, at the very same moment, it will be accessible to every broadband-enabled household in America. Technically, this will be the widest first-run release of any film in history.”

Talk about coming soon to a home theater near you. OK, so the question isn’t whether Gigantic’s gambit is noble, bold and innovative. The question right now is, should you see Must Read After My Death? The answer: of course. It’s mesmerizing. With 100 percent certainty, I can assert that it is not too soon to shortlist this for best documentary of the year. And bear in mind, I said the same way back in August about Man on Wire.

Imagine a cinematic salad of bits from a Richard Yates novel — say Revolutionary Road — tossed with a Douglas Sirk film, spiced with dashes of The Ice Storm, Running With Scissors and Far From Heaven, and you have some sense of the tone and topic of Dews’ feature-length debut — which, by the way, has wowed audiences and judges alike on the festival circuit.

Shortly after the death of his grandmother Allis in 2001, the filmmaker came across a remarkable collection of home movies, Dictaphone and tape recordings, photographs and letters. “When I found out about the box,” Dews recalled in an interview, “the decision to make the film sort of made me. There was an amazing story inside . . . I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew that if I listened hard enough, Allis would tell me.”

What his grandmother tells is her story, the story of a woman trapped between two worlds. From the outside, she lived the life of a typical wife and mother in the Connecticut suburbs of the early ’60s. She had an insurance executive husband named Charley, four children and a house with a white picket fence. But while this marriage may have looked like a spin-off of “The Donna Reed Show,” behind closed doors it was a horror show.

Allis and Charley had an open marriage, and the Dictaphone messages he sent while away on business often described his dalliances in detail. For Allis, “free love” was largely theoretical, since she was stuck in the suburbs doing laundry, cooking meals and raising the kids.

And the only thing worse than Charley being away, we discover, was Charley being home. He was a heavy-drinking, wildly insecure nutjob who rode his family mercilessly about the importance of keeping the house in order (“especially the bedrooms”), and he was capable of violence. Allis taped many hours of screaming fights, along with her expressions of concern for the children and reflections on her life — where it was going and whether she could still change it.

Therapy only made matters worse. One of the kids wound up in an institution; another left home. Not surprisingly, since all the analysts were male and this was the 1960s, Allis was assigned the blame for her family’s implosion. Against all odds and to her great credit, however, she never stopped second-guessing the authority figures and fighting for control of her life. She was a woman ahead of her time.

Watching the American nightmare of Must Read After My Death, it’s impossible not to be both horrified and powerfully moved. It’s also impossible not to feel profound admiration for the artfulness with which Dews has pieced these archival cries for help into a singular creation that anyone who appreciates first-rate filmmaking must see.