Must Read After My Death Dir. Morgan Dews

[Gigantic Releasing; 2009]

Must Read After My Death is a documentary constructed out of family films, photographs, and audio diary recordings made by director Morgan Dews' grandmother, Allis. These scratchy Dictaphone recordings chronicle Allis’ growing despair over her marriage and her role as a homemaker, and when Dews backs them with the spare, haunting melodies of composer Paul Damian Hogan, it feels like The Books doing Revolutionary Road.

Must Read contains many tropes we're used to seeing in dramas about post-war suburban America: the wife’s confinement to the home, the obsession with psychiatry, the heavy drinking, the self-assured, casual misogyny. But we’re used to seeing these tropes in fiction, where they’re flagged as instances of sexism and patriarchy, where there might even be a character who can stand in for the viewer in critiquing these problems — e.g., the "lunatic" in Revolutionary Road or Peggy in Mad Men. We like these characters because they make sense of the situation on our own terms. But these historically precocious characters make the injustices of the day seem clearer than they were to the people actually confronting them. Allis’ recordings return these injustices to their inchoate, ambiguous, and painful reality.

Allis is independent enough to chaff under the roles she's expected to play, but she lives in a time when feminism is less a part of the cultural milieu than it is today. So when her psychiatrist says that her values, unlike her husband's, are flexible, and that her refusal to sacrifice them to the requirements of motherhood has resulted not only in her own unhappiness but in her son's irrational outbursts against his father, Allis doesn't indignantly denounce psychiatry as a patriarchal disciplining mechanism. Instead, she accepts the blame it puts on her and feels genuinely guilty about her unhappiness. This makes for an especially agonizing emotional cocktail, and Allis’ recordings grow increasingly desperate as the film progresses. By the end, she’s cursing her trap of a home and empathizing with people who kill their kids out of pity for what they'll encounter in adulthood. That her only outlet was talking into a Dictaphone hammers home the explicit desperation and loneliness that are the subjects of these recordings.

My only quibble is with Dews’ occasional attempts at levity, which take the form of visual puns. For example, when Allis’ husband is recommending that she see a shrink, Dews shows footage of the children playing doctor; or when Allis is frantically asking herself whether she has the right to take time off from her family, Dews is rolling film of a dog suckling seven puppies. I can work my way around to liking these juxtapositions: the scenes of the children playing doctor could be commentary on the earliness of our enculturation into medical roles and concepts of sickness and health; the suckling puppies could be an allusion to biological facts that were probably used to justify Allis’ confinement to the home. But my first reaction to them was that they were either too cute or weirdly callous: Is there any justification for showing a “Slow Children at Play” sign when Allis’ son, home from the mental ward, is asking her whether he should be put in a "school for retarded kids"? Fortunately, these visual puns are few and far between, and, in the end, Must Read After My Death is a heartbreaking, well-executed film.

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