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3 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Must Read After My Death
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by Lybarger

"Grandma and Grampa are fighting again."
4 stars

'Must Read After My Death' feels less like a documentary and more like a loud scream for help. Without the use of a narrator, director Morgan Dews chronicles his grandparents’ spectacularly dysfunctional marriage in their own, long-silenced voices.

Dews’ grandfather Allis and grandfather Charlie (their surnames have been excluded to ensure the privacy of the other descendants) sent each other Dictaphone recordings instead of letters throughout the 1960s. Charlie was working in Australia while Allis kept up the home and raised their four children in Connecticut.

Charlie and Allis’ silent home movies, which make up most of the running time of “Must Read After My Death,” show a family happily playing and posing for the camera. Their home looks large and comfortable, and they don’t seem to be wanting for money or creature comforts.

The recorded letters and a sort of tape-recorded diary that Aliss kept reveal a much more disturbing picture. The early recordings are loaded with bland statements of affection. But Charlie gradually reveals that he not only likes to dance with the women he’s met in Australia, but that he thinks that fidelity is an antiquated notion.

At the same time Charlie is proclaiming libertine values, he demands that she keep the house neat and clean. She, not surprisingly, finds being a housewife stifling. Indeed, Charlie’s relentless quest for freedom may be due to the fact that tradition isn’t working out for him, either.

While the images from the couple’s pictures present their children as attractive and healthy, the tapes reveal that Mom and Dad’s anxieties have rubbed off on them. Their daughter has run off and married young, and all of the sons demonstrate social and academic issues. One winds up in mental institution despite the fact that he’s sane. Worse, the recordings include actual shouting matches among members of the family as they hurl insults at each other.

When we stare at the financial and societal ills in today’s world, it’s easy to look at the past in an idealized light. “Must Read After My Death” proves that our ancestors didn’t have it any easier. You can hear the turbulence in every syllable Aliss, Charlie and the children utter. Listening to the agonies of our forebearers makes dealing with the present less taxing.

Aliss talks at length about feeling unable to meet the burdens of traditional wife and mother. The family psychiatrist, instead of providing her with support or encouragement, diagnoses her in a manner that exasperates her feelings of inadequacy. Today, this shrink would probably be a malpractice suit waiting to happen. Back then, his toxic nonsense was treated as the voice of authority.

Dews’ unusual approach to telling his family’s difficult story is ultimately successful, while still a mixed blessing. By contrasting the happy sights in the home movies with the misery in the tapes, “Must Read After My Death” has a consistently eerie feel, as if Aliss is telling viewers not to believe their eyes.

At times, a little more context might have been helpful. It would have been interesting to know what Charlie did for a living that took him away from home for more than half a year. Also, Aliss and Charlie were each married to others when they met. The story might have been a tad more dynamic if we could have experienced a little of the euphoria that led to agony later in their lives.

The soundtrack features dissonant music that quickly gets monotonous. The recordings themselves are unsettling in themselves, so any augmentation is overkill.

Dews’ creativity is reflected in how the film is being released. If you can’t catch a screening in New York this weekend, you can watch it online at for $2.99.

While “Must Read After My Death” is unflinchingly grim, Dews reveals the situation wasn’t hopeless. Aliss lived another 30 years and was a happy and enthusiastic grandmother, and her children have grown into contented adults. As unpleasant as the period depicted in the film is, you can’t help but admire how Aliss and her family survived it.

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originally posted: 02/22/09 16:29:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/02/09 Rhonda Bariff very, very interesting film ultimately life-afirming 4 stars
2/22/09 Margaret Rak Your reviewer completely misses the point of the cultural trap in which Allis was caught 5 stars
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  DVD: 10-Nov-2009


  DVD: 10-Nov-2009

Directed by
  Morgan Dews

Written by
  Morgan Dews


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