Saturday, February 21, 2009

A family falls apart and you can watch

The documentary "Must Read After My Death" opened in New York and Los Angeles Friday, but is available online at Gigantic is exploring new models of film distribution, including day-and-date releasing for independent movies. If you don't live in New York or LA or you're agoraphobic, you can watch "Must Read" without leaving home.

I had been planning to ignore the whole thing, but I got a persuasive email from the company. Independent films might be an endangered species. New ways of reaching the public are necessary. Although I still haven't entirely adjusted to the idea of watching movies on computers, I've lately come to believe in supporting -- or at least trying -- mechanisms that expand a filmmaker's ability to reach more viewers. I asked for a DVD so that I could screen the movie for review.

In a way, I wish I hadn't because I found the movie intrusive and, at times, distasteful. I wish I could encourage you to race to Gigantic's site and prepare for a deeply emotional experience rather than one that might be viewed as increasingly off-putting.

Dews should, I suppose, be credited for attempting something with a high degree of difficulty. He assembled his documentary entirely from a collection of photographs, home movies and Dictaphone recordings that his grandmother left him. As he sifted through what I presume were box after box of Grandma's personal memorabilia, Dews discovered that his family history was anything but placid. Unhappy families aside, "Must Read" stands as the latest addition to a genre that might be dubbed "attic cinema," movies assembled from found materials that reflect the abundant self-absorption of those who made them. Grandma's well-stocked attic includes confessional sessions with tape recorders, recorded messages to kids, recordings of family screaming matches and more.

If every film needs a villain, the bad-guy mantle in "Must Read" wraps around Grandpa's shoulders. Grandpa Charley worked as an insurance executive, and seemed intent on making a philosophy out of his philandering. At times, he communicates the air of superiority of someone who believes he's pioneering important, new moral ground. Charley made no secret of his infidelities, recording messages for Grandma about his dates. Charley traveled a lot, which made his extramarital life easier.

For her part, Grandma Allis struggled with motherhood and household duties; she fulfilled her domestic obligations while Charley was busy espousing the glories of an open marriage. Allis doesn't seem entirely comfortable with Charley's values, but even if she wanted an open marriage, she would have been hard-pressed to maintain a rigorous bed-hopping schedule. She stayed home with the kids, and tried to keep the house from slipping into chaos.

There's no question that Dews faced a daunting task, weaving a coherent narrative out of so much material. The recordings seem far more interesting than the visuals, but in the end, I couldn't help wondering why I was immersing myself in so much family misery, a feeling I also had while watching "Capturing the Friedmans," another movie that relentlessly explored the life of a family but perhaps with better reason.

This time, I couldn't come up with a compelling excuse for eavesdropping. I was surprised at the way some people -- even in the days before the prevalence of video cameras -- compulsively put their lives on film and audiotape. No box of unmarked, fading photos for this grandma. But the line between exploitation and revelation gets thinner as the movie progresses, and, by the end, I was glad to be done with this fractured and fractious family. In short, it didn't seem to me that Dews had discovered a subject I needed to know about as much as he did.

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