Must Read After My Death, director Morgan Dews’s assemblage of his grandmother’s recently discovered home movies and audiotapes, has an ideal audience of no more than a dozen: the family’s surviving members and their offspring. Imagined as a revealing look into the hidden lives of the filmmaker’s ancestors, and chock-full of surprising information concerning the real nature of those lives, the film may well have proved revelatory for those who knew its subjects. But for the rest of us, having no prior acquaintance with the people glimpsed in the footage, there’s no received wisdom to be revised. So instead of fresh discovery, we get another portrait of a stultifying American suburbia, overly familiar in its catalog of repressive gender roles, sexual jealousies, and tyrannical patriarchs, but given unexpected pathos through the emergence of its strong central figure, a bright, cultured housewife driven to near hysteria by the restraints and misunderstandings of a rigidly gender-dictated society.
Cobbled together from hundreds of hours of archival material, Must Read traces a decade in the life of its central family, from the early ‘60s through 1970, as matriarch Allis remarries, has four kids, and eventually finds her domestic paradise become unbearable. Under the pressures of an insecure and increasingly autocratic husband, an open marriage policy which seems more geared to the husband’s libido than to any sense of personal freedom, her eldest son’s undiagnosed dyslexia and another son’s apparent mental disorder, our stressed housewife inches ever closer to a breakdown.
Overlaying audio taken from dictaphone machines and tape recorders with asynchronous video footage, Dews allows his central figure to emerge as something more than a disembodied voice or an abstracted image. A woman who speaks four languages, lived a previous bohemian life in Europe, and then gave it up to pursue motherhood, she’s finally stripped of all ambition and ground down under the heel of patriarchal authority. This authority takes the form not only of her husband, but of the film’s real villain, the unseen psychiatrist Dr. Lenn, a man who places all the blame for her children’s shortcomings squarely on Allis’s shoulders and then refuses to countenance the thought of her fleeing her oppressive situation.
If Allis’s plight sounds like that of many a contemporary Hollywood matriarch, then Dews’s film occasionally feels like little more than a nonfiction counterpart to such recent fare as Revolutionary Road and Little Children. But in its strong central figure and in its modest insights into the psychology of oppression, Must Read is a marginally more interesting, if not exactly wished for, treatment of suburban anomie than its more high-profile brethren.