Memories of a Marriage

Must Read After My Death
Running time 73 minutes
Written and directed by Morgan Dews

Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death has been compared to a confessional real-life classic like Capturing the Friedmans (2003), though there is not in Must Read the spicy suspicion of child molestation that made the movie about the Friedmans such a sensational nonfiction success. Mr. Dews is the grandson of a twice-married woman named Allis, who, through the ’50s and ’60s, kept copious records on film and through dictaphone of her faltering marriage to a man named Charley, and the devastating effect it had on their four children, Anne, Bruce, Chuck and Douglas.

Must Read After My Death
Running time 73 minutes
Written and directed by Morgan Dews

Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death has been compared to a confessional real-life classic like Capturing the Friedmans (2003), though there is not in Must Read the spicy suspicion of child molestation that made the movie about the Friedmans such a sensational nonfiction success. Mr. Dews is the grandson of a twice-married woman named Allis, who, through the ’50s and ’60s, kept copious records on film and through dictaphone of her faltering marriage to a man named Charley, and the devastating effect it had on their four children, Anne, Bruce, Chuck and Douglas. Psychiatrists were called in, and Bruce was briefly institutionalized.

What is unusual about all the material compiled, organized and preserved by the filmmaker’s grandmother is that there seems to have been no attempt to censor the family’s violent feelings during the stormy years of the marriage. Every psyche is laid bare for our perusal, and often, the family members scream at each other on tape; at one point one of the boys shouts that he is going to kill the father for constantly belittling his mother.

Not that the mother glosses over her own shortcomings, like being a poor housekeeper. One would think that with all the work she did recording the family’s traumas, there would not be enough time for tasks like housework. I’m not sure how I got to know that Allis and Charley were both on their second marriages when they were wed right after World War II. Charley was an alcoholic and a philanderer, particularly during his long periods of employment in Australia, while Allis was left home in Hartford to raise their four children. Incidentally, their surviving children are now also on their second marriages.

Some reviewers at the various film festivals, at which Must Read was shown to great acclaim, have suggested that the film depicts the period of the ’50s and ’60s with much the same derision displayed toward this period by a popular new television series, Mad Men. I am not so sure.

To perform the arduous tasks involved in recording one’s own life in such exhaustive detail requires a degree of narcissism that few among us could possibly sustain in any period. As it happens, Allis and Charley seemed to have entered into an open marriage, during which Charley did his part by submitting footage of his Australian girlfriends with no apologies on his part.

If there are any villains in all the footage, they would seem to be the psychiatrists, who tried to treat the whole family with mostly disastrous results.

I can recommend this film with the proviso that you don’t have to accept it at face value. For myself, I found its frankness entrancing. There is something eerie about all the whining and wailing. It is as if we had suppressed all memories of our own outbreaks of self-pity, and Must Read forces us to remember.

asarris@observer.com