There is a moment in everyone's life where we realize the truth of our family.
Sometimes, this truth is devastating. It may be borne out of years of crossed communications, broken relationships, life failures and shattered dreams.
Just as often, however, this truth is a truth worth celebrating. We discover it when we are ready to embrace a different reality, a perception perhaps very different than that which we've long accepted. We may, in fact, discover love where we long recognized only dysfunction.
Then, on occasion, we are gifted with a very different truth about family. It is neither good nor bad, a truth neither to be grieved not celebrated. Sometimes, we learn, family simply is.
The beauty of "Must Read After My Death," a documentary founded upon the long hidden truths of the real life family of filmmaker Morgan Dews, is that these truths are not grieved nor celebrated, dramatized nor stylized. Utilizing an extensive collection of dictaphone tapes, home videos and photographs that he acquired after the death of his grandmother, Allis, Dews has crafted a searingly honest and intimate portrait of a family, his family, that is simultaneously mesmerizing, heartbreaking and yet strangely, eerily, even a bit comfortably familiar.
We've seen this style of filmmaking before, films such as "Tarnation," "51 Birch Street," and even "Capturing the Friedmans" come to mind.
Yet, "Must Read After My Death" feels different. Whereas those films are influenced by the filmmaker's perception of the reality, "Must Read After My Death" is constructed almost exclusively by the cold, hard facts of this family.
Sure, it is undeniable that Dews edited, shaped, molded and made decisions about the dozens of hours he possessed and pared down to a rather sparse, 76-minute documentary.
In fact, it is just as undeniable that the film's accompany musical score by Paul Damian Hogan is as intimately and artistically constructed as the film itself.
Yet, "Must Read After My Death" is different because Dews doesn't interject himself into the scenario, other than a single photo of himself with his mother shortly after his birth.
Additionally, Dews avoids the all too familiar trappings of narratives, voiceovers, expository interviews and outside influences.
"Must Read After My Death" isn't a confessional film. There isn't, in reality, a confession anywhere in the film. Rather, "Must Read After My Death" is the story of an American film desperately clawing at the walls of hope and healing just trying to survive.
Charley and Allis were married in the late 1940's and raised four children in Hartford, Connecticut. Their marriage was different, perhaps an open marriage. Charley spent four months out of the year on business in Australia, and the recorded tapes became a way for husband and wife, children and parents to share themselves with one another.
This sharing, it would seem, became an obsession and lasted long after the trips to Australia had ended. These tapes would, over the years, carry with them the growing separation in marriage and family. These tapes became filled with moments of great tenderness followed by times of violent rage.
One can't help but wonder if these tapes, in fact, replaced any semblance of true family.
Allis was a modestly educated, ambitious woman who felt pressured to relinquish her hopes and dreams for the good of the family, both by the love she felt for her children and the psychiatrist the family would hire and come to rely on over the years.
Charley, who suffered at times with insecurity over his wife's education and ambition, possessed the ability to ignore his family's needs while he was away and, at times, the tapes reveal a man's man who would dance away his nights with a variety of women. Yet, there are moments, when his tender love of Allis and his children is revealed.
It seems rather amazing that Morgan, a grandchild to Allis and Charley, could not know these family truths as these truths so clearly influenced the children of Charley and Allis. Of Charley and Allis's four children, two would spend time in mental institutions and one would die as a teenager. Charley himself would die a mere two days after being confronted on tape, more brutally than ever, by Allis.
The death was, by all accounts, quite suspicious. For a family that so embraced the revelation of truth it is perhaps the most cruel of ironies that this truth remains hidden.
Almost jarringly, this is where the tapes end. Allis would live for another 31 years, she would never remarry.
It is this lack of continuation that makes "Must Read After My Death" feel just a touch incomplete. While it confirms that these tapes and these recordings were, in fact, almost exclusively about the marriage of Charley and Allis, it is hard not to wonder what happened to Allis and her surviving three children over the next 31 years.
Did she stop recording?
Did she ever view those tapes that were recorded secretly, including those of the other family members? We learn that each family member had committed to never intruding on each other's tape, and yet it is also revealed that Charley had, in fact, heard his wife's final tape before his death?
What happened to the children after the recording was done?
What WERE the next 31 years like, given the excruciating truths of the the years up to Charley's death?
Perhaps, it is true that this family became a family much like yours and mine. Perhaps, the recordings and truth sharings were replaced by discretion.
Perhaps, the years of sharing by video and tape were replaced by holidays together, vacations and traditional familial relationships.
I think not, but perhaps.
There are moments in life that define us as family. These moments are happy and sad, joyous and tragic, complex and mundane.
These moments, beautifully and authentically captured and constructed by Morgan Dews, are poignant, tender, angry, hypnotic, innocent, taunting, honest and true.
This is family.
It just is.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic