Must Read After My Death makes narrative sense out of experience, but also leaves much of the nonsense in place, not explaining or rationalizing.
Editor's Note: Outside of New York and L.A., the film is available for digital viewing at www.giganticdigital.com beginning 20 February. The cost is $2.99 for a three-day, unlimited viewing ticket.
"These are just conversations back and forth, as if we were talking on the phone. They are only valuable for the impact and effect they have when you listen to them. I don't think there's any reason they should be kept for posterity." Charley's assessment of his long distance exchanges with his wife Allis is both right and telling. The Dictaphone recordings, records, 8mm movies, and transcripts that she accumulated during their marriage are at once private and representative, meaningful one way for the correspondents at the time, but also resonant and revealing for the rest of us.
Allis and Charley's communications, excerpted and edited by their grandson Morgan Dews as the documentary, Must Read After My Death, reveal not only their own tensions and efforts, but also the beliefs, ambitions, and regrets of their time and place. Culled from 50 hours of tapes and some "201 home movies" discovered after Allis' death in 2001, the movie offers impressions of a marriage in trouble. "I love my children, I want to be a good mother to them," Allis says over familiar-seeming images of a circa-mid-'50s suburban home and proud young parents with chubby babies, "But I'm not a person to sit around and sew and decorate and paint and do things like that. I am not a housewife. I have never been a housewife."
And yet, that is what Allis became for much of her adult life, tending to four children while Charley worked, often traveling for "16 weeks out of the year," she says. His recorded letter provides context: "Hi mommy and the kids. It's nice to be in Australia where there's no snow, but it's not as interesting as Hartford, Connecticut." Shots of snow streets and bare branches are intercut with home movies of "the kids" in kimonos, gifts sent home in his absence. The children pose for the camera, their faces alternately smiling and strained. Daughter Anne hopes he'll come home soon, promising that he'll find a "completely in-order house."
Anne's assurance hints that perhaps their family is not so idyllic as the posed images suggest. "I think maybe in recent years," Allis suggests, "You and I have not talked to each other enough, communication has broken down."
Indeed, as Must Read After My Death shows, the very concept of communication is ambiguous. For along with Allis and Charley's conversations (with help from the children as they grew older), the film also includes her recordings to therapists, as the family sought help from psychiatrists and psychologists (one of the boys was institutionalized at age 14, after he threatened his father). As it emerges that they have an "open" marriage, it also becomes clear that this both indicated and caused fundamental frictions. Following clips of Charley on a dance floor ("People say, 'You love women,' which I do; there have been three that are very interesting and very delightful"), the film offers up clips of a happy family, Charley and the children laughing in the backyard. "As I've told mommy," Charley instructs, "The only principle source of any unhappiness in our family, I think, is keeping the house picked up and looking like the place it should like. And I'm thinking particularly about bedrooms." If everyone does his or her part to keep the house "picked up," he pledges, "Then I'll do my part to try to be nicer and more pleasant and to spend more time with you. Is that a fair bargain? "
As the movie makes combines self-recorded imagery with a sort of "found narration," it recalls other recent films about families coming apart, 51 Birch Street, Capturing the Friedmans or even Tarnation. But Must Read After My Death includes no overview, no story of discovery by the filmmaker or interviews with family survivors, no look back on the tumult except for the self-analysis provided by Allis as she's in the midst of it. But the film provides its own associations and judgments, drawing Charley as a villain from Allis' perspective.
His recordings repeatedly suggest his tendency to dominate ("You probably don't really agree with my philosophy on love and sex, I think you try to tell me that you'd like to be a one-man dog and you'd like to be possessive," he says, over images of the happy family on the beach with a dog). At the same time, hers suggest her increasing frustrations. "Do I have the right," she asks over shots of a mother dog and puppies, "To take the time from the family to do anything?"
Allis' voice and concerns shape the film. These include her disagreements with Charley over his excess drinking and other indulgences (he's "so much nicer to be with when he's sober," she says, but when she asks Charley during an argument, "Can I say something? You shut me up every time I open my mouth," he responds, "Because you have no damn business to. "It's none of your business what I spend on my expense account") as well as complaints to and about her doctors, who want to commit her son Bruce and suggest she's to blame for her children's dysfunctions ("I told Dr. Lenn, 'Why don't you let me leave? Why can't I leave?'").
The film doesn’t pretend to diagnose the marriage or Allis or Charley. Instead, it appears to let them speak for themselves, as they describe hopes and betrayals, yearnings and disappointments. He describes for her a woman with whom he "would love to get together," and hopes, "You'll foster this yourself." She laments that, even though she loved school and had four languages, she gave up college, in part, as she remembers it, because "He had no college because he is very, very sensitive."
But if Must Read After My Death doesn't diagnose, it does indict -- an era, a culture, and a set of expectations that produced both Charley and Allis, as well as their children (Anne being Morgan's mother). "When I say 'shenanigans," Allis explains, "I mean paid-for shenanigans. I don't care what he does. I don't like to have him pay for it." In the next instant, she's describing an assault. Charley "slapped me in the jaw," she says, "My jaw hurts, my teeth hurt." If she doesn't explicitly draw a connection between Charley's sense of prerogative and control in the marriage and his abuses, psychic and physical, the film does it for her. Sort of.
It's in this "sort of" space, in the perpetual mix of story and reflection that Must Read After My Death is most interesting and innovative. As it makes narrative sense out of experience, it also leaves much of the nonsense in place, not explaining or rationalizing, but showing that such inclinations -- by doctors, husbands, and even mothers -- can be as disturbing as the chaos they seek to fix.