Watching Must Read After My Death, writer-director Morgan Dews’ found-footage narcissistumentary, is akin to listening to a stranger describe his nocturnal dreams: it’s dull and confusing, not nearly as intriguing as the storyteller believes it to be. After Dews’ grandmother (Aliss, last name omitted to protect the privacy of the living) died, the filmmaker discovered a trove of media in her home preserved for posterity, including photographs, Dictaphone records, magnetic audiotape and reels of Kodachrome. Aliss had a habit of recording herself confessing her fears, concerns and insights, as well as taping the family’s feuds. Assembled, the collection documents her family’s descent into dysfunction during the 1960s.
The movie takes its name from the label on a box of Aliss’ tape transcripts. Dews’ fundamental misstep is mistaking that “must” as a requirement for the whole world, not just for his family; the “dark secrets” that Dews uncovers should shock no one but himself (and perhaps his cousins). It turns out his grandfather (Charley) was a grumpy drunk with ahead-of-his-time attitudes about free love; that his uncle was mentally unstable and spent several years institutionalized; that his grandmother was a non-conformist driven mad by her husband and psychiatrists, who demanded that she settle into her proper distaff role of suburban mother, housewife and cocktail party hostess — “a woman with a capital W.” Audiences have more or less seen these same types before, as recently as Revolutionary Road: The Movie, as far back as Revolutionary Road: The Book. (And at all points in between.) That the characters here are “real” makes little difference; they’re still, at this point, clichés, belying the promise of the Levittown Dream for the thousandth time.
That’s not to say there aren’t real moments of pathos; it stings when a hysterical Aliss admits on tape, “I can understand people who kill their children, rather than have them live like this.” But there’s an emotional disconnect between what the audience hears and what it sees. Working from an unexceptional bank of footage, Dews (mis)matches the intimacy and raw emotions from his audio file to the typically tedious home movies from his video file: people standing around, smiling; children posing and playing; roadsides rolling by, shot from the window of a moving car. (For 73 tortoiselike minutes!) Often this leads to absurd juxtapositions — Dews plays talk of Charley’s drinking problem against the image of a dog licking the inside of a glass — but these seem less cleverly risible than the work of a filmmaker struggling to make the best of his lot. If he’d had a shot of Charley stumbling drunk, it’s likely he would have used it instead.
And though the sound recordings are frequently brutal, it’s difficult to make sense of them. (Not literally: the scratchy soundtrack is subtitled.) Dews decided, wrongly, not to guide viewers along himself, just to drop them into the archive and let them stumble through it. He offers no narrations or explanations; only the broadest and most essential details are explained through intertitles. Must Read After My Death is a story told in fragments that sorely lack context or connective tissue. It’s like reading a copyrighted novel on GoogleBooks where, for every two pages available, one is missing. As such, Dews never invests his tragic family story with the gravitas it needs — and, anyway, doesn’t deserve.