Who are your parents? Do you know them, truly? Or do you just know the pieces of them they've chosen to show you?
That's the essential question I took away from Morgan Dews' brilliant documentary collage, Must Read After My Death, which screened at the 2008 Viennale. Constructed entirely out of found footage — reels of 8mm film, still photographs and extensive audio recordings — the film is a piercing examination of a profoundly dysfunctional American marriage in the conformist 1960s.
Must Read After My Death is the story of Charley and Aliss and their four children, Anne, Bruce, Chuck, and Dougie, told in their own words. Charley's job took him to Australia for 16 weeks out of the year, so in order to stay in touch with his family, he bought two Dictaphones. One went Down Under with him; the other stayed at home with Aliss and the kids. They sent recordings back and forth to one another, literally communicating on two levels: One message was for (or from) the family, while the other was a private recording from one adult to the other.
At first, the tenor of the conversations is fairly ordinary: Aliss is a stereotypical housewife, relating one of the kids' accomplishments or another, while Charley plays the stern father, reminding the children to do their chores and mind their mother. It's nothing out of the ordinary; in fact, it seems kind of dull.
But then we hear the private messages, and certain phrases and ideas stick out. Is Charley's talk of "dancing" with his lady friends in Australia intended to twist some secret knife in Aliss' heart? Is his suggestion that she find some "fun and frolic" of her own while he's away just spiteful, or something else?
Gradually, the picture becomes clear: Charley and Aliss had an open marriage, or at least one that was remarkably flexible given the era in which they lived. And if Charley was making the most of his time away from the family, Aliss wasn't exactly remaining chaste; she confesses to a liberating trip to New York City with an unidentified male friend, telling Charley it felt wonderful.
The narrative presses into the lives of the children next: Anne is moody, Bruce is conflicted about school and Chuck is more openly rebellious. (Dougie, the youngest, just sort of disappears into the background most of the time.) Again, they sound just like stereotypical American kids ... but then we start to key in on darker, deeper meaning behind those stereotypes.
Bruce and Chuck aren't just struggling academically and socially; they may be genuinely mentally ill. Certainly, Aliss' psychotherapist, the enigmatic Dr. Lenn, is happy to certify them as such, if the opportunity presents itself; one son is committed to a mental hospital for an indeterminate stretch of time in order to deal with his rages.
But the more we listen to the tapes, and the more we see of Charley and Aliss, the more it becomes clear that psychotherapy is not the problem. Charley is revealed as an irrational authoritarian, and an alcoholic besides; the audio of father and children bellowing at one another down during supposedly placid family conferences is terrifying. Aliss retreats into Dr. Lenn's prescriptions, doing whatever he suggests — no matter how destructive it might be to her family — and leaving the kids at the mercy of their father.
Dews refuses to comment on the narrative, aside from providing the occasional piece of information via on-screen supers. He simply lets the family's story play out in front of us, illustrating the audio with photos or film footage as appropriate. Charley's empty lizard grin becomes a recurring motif, as does Aliss' squinty smile and Chuck's helpless, quavering voice.
Part of the sell on Must Read After My Death is the fact that Dews is the grandson of Charley and Aliss, and that he was completely unaware of this aspect of his family until he stumbled upon Aliss' trove of archival materials, after her death. (His film takes its title from her handwritten instructions.)
This is both a hell of a gimmick and an admission of a powerful truth: We only know as much about our families as we are allowed to know. All parents hold things back from their children; all children hide things from their parents. Grandchildren are further removed from their grandparents, and so forth.
Dews' film is all the more remarkable for his commitment to presenting it as truthfully as possible, flaws and all; only through a kind of honest archaeology can he come to understand this buried history, and share it with us. I have no idea how he feels about his family now, but I'm forever in his debt.