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Must Read After My Death (2007)

 |  Documentary  |  June 2008 (USA)
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Ratings: 6.5/10 from 145 users   Metascore: 75/100
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A grandmother dies and leaves behind hours of secret film and audio recordings as well as an envelope with the words "Must read after my death", which reveal a dark history for her family to discover.



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A grandmother dies and leaves behind hours of secret film and audio recordings as well as an envelope with the words "Must read after my death", which reveal a dark history for her family to discover.

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Worthy entry to the family-dysfunction-confessional genre
21 February 2009 | by (Bucktown) – See all my reviews

In the tradition of "Capturing the Friedmans" and last year's "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father" comes "Must Read After My Death", a tale of the psychological despair which was the sad reality of many suburban families' home lives, beneath the shiny plastic veneer which was the prevailing myth in America during the post-Eisenhower years, but before the counterculture really took its root. The "Leave It to Beaver" family unit, so persistently idealized in the pop culture, was merely a mask which hid beneath it the face of a collective scarred psyche. The story being told here is about one specific family. Morgan Dews, the filmmaker, inherited a trove of materials when, in 2001, his maternal grandmother died, age 90. These materials, which make up almost the entirety of this film, included, among other things, hundreds of hours of dictaphone and tape recordings, photographs, and super-8 home movies. Although the home movies by and large show what you'd expect, idyllic scenes of a happy family, the audio recordings tell a completely different tale. What once was a happy marriage has degraded into a marital war zone, fought out in middle-class suburban Connecticut, a world where emotional, psychological, and even occasional physical abuse mar the landscape, and the four children are caught in the crossfire. Dews' grandmother Allis, in her younger years, lived in Europe as a somewhat accomplished singer, married to one of the renowned tenors of the day. She was of a continental and generally worldly set, but her stay over there was cut short abruptly by the outbreak of WWII. After moving back to the States, she met and fell in love with Charley, the filmmakers grandfather. As time went on, they had children, four in all, including the director's mother Anne, and his three uncles. Charley got a better job, and as they moved in to a bigger house in suburban Connecticut, their domestic life began to come apart at the seams. Charley is becoming more and more of an alcoholic, spending months at a time overseas for his work, and cavorting about with various women (the couple had an open relationship.) Allis, for her part, is increasingly stifled by the pressures of keeping a home, especially since she was accustomed to the bon vivant lifestyle of a European artist from her earlier life. Anne, the daughter, escaped as soon as she could, leaving home and getting married. It wasn't so easy for the three brothers, unfortunately, as they were at home to bear witness to the increasingly hostile environment inhabited by their parents. Psychotherapy, which is a constant theme in this movie, is of no help, as the chauvinist doctors assure Allis that everything is her fault, and that her husband is doing the best he can in the face of all of this. Eventually, one of the sons is shipped off to a mental hospital after violently threatening his father, and the relationship between Charley and Allis tailspins even further. Then, of a sudden, tragedy and redemption strike the family. The eldest son, Chuck, having gone off to college, is killed in an auto accident on a country road while assisting another motorist, who ran their car off the road. Within days of this tragedy, Charley is dead on the floor of his bedroom. This led the way for the third act of Allis's life: after Charley's death, the children being of an age to look out for themselves, she moved into a house in rural Vermont, where she lived as an independent woman for the rest of her life. It was at that very same house where the troves of material in this film were found. The audio in this movie comes exclusively from two sources (not including the original score). First dictaphone records, which were made by the family as a means of communication during the long months when he was abroad. Second (and more comprehensively) were tape recordings made by the couple as a tool for their joint therapist, the aforementioned dealer in poor medical advice. These fascinating, completely dysfunctional sound recordings tend to become even more so when paired on the screen, in an almost avant garde fashion, with the grainy, iconic imagery of the home movies, having been lended an extra degree of irony. All told, the movie comes out as a fairly formidable debunking of the myth of the Nuclear Family.

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