Largely because of the movies, the era from the end of World War II to the assassination of John F. Kennedy has a reputation for being idyllic and clean, full of pressed clothes and pleasant attitudes. (Never mind that the novelists and B-pictures of the age said otherwise.) If nothing else, Morgan Dews’ documentary Must Read After My Death offers a rebuttal to nostalgists and reactionaries who pine for “the good ol’ days.” When Dews’ grandmother Allis died, he inherited her cache of photographs, journals, home movies, and audiotapes, and discovered a harrowing family history. Allis was a fervent believer in psychotherapy, and she spent much of the ’60s keeping meticulous records of her children’s neuroses, her husband Charley’s weaknesses, and her own exhaustion with trying to put on a brave face for her upper-middle-class Connecticut neighbors. Even at their happiest, Allis’ clan looked and sounded ruffled.
Of course, Dews doesn’t go out of his way to make his relatives look good. He sets the slowed-down home movies to a haunting soundtrack, and offers no interviews or voiceovers to fill in the gaps in Allis’ version of what was going on in her house. Given that Dews’ mother fled for New York when she was still a teenager, and one of his uncles spent much of his adolescence in an institution, there’s no reason to doubt Allis’ documentation of a family torn apart by constant bickering. Still, she wasn’t switching on her tape recorder to vent when she had a good day.
The relentless negativity in Must Read After My Death can become overwhelming at times, but it’s undeniably mesmerizing. As we hear Charley complaining about untidiness, or confessing his affairs (while implying that Allis had some of her own), or we hear Allis wondering why she has sole responsibility for housekeeping and child-rearing, it’s hard not to look at the flickering images of faded suburbia on the screen and wonder how many seemingly placid households at the time were being eaten up by the same anxieties. Mistakenly or no, by the end of Must Read After My Death, the audience will feel like they know Dews’ family. Largely because of the movies.