Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 25 November 2008
Source DVD Screener
For the last few years or so I’ve been trying – halfheartedly out of resignation – to track down a copy of Jonas Mekas’ As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, a five-hour, heavily-edited compilation of the director’s home movies that represents Mekas’ own theory of cinema’s future, first proposed in a column he wrote for the Village Voice in 1963:
The day is close when the 8mm home-movie footage will be collected and appreciated as beautiful folk art, like songs and the lyric poetry that was created by the people. Blind as we are, it will take us a few more years to see it, but some people see it already. They see the beauty of the sunsets taken by a Bronx woman when she passed through the Arizona desert; travelogue footage, awkward footage that will suddenly sing with an unexpected rapture; the Brooklyn Bridge footage; the spring cherry blossoms footage; the Coney Island footage; the Orchard Street footage—time is laying a veil of poetry over them.
8mm film has now gone by the wayside, replaced in the decades since Mekas’ article by cassette tapes, DVDs, and the “video” features on digital cameras and cell phones. Even the uniqueness of home movies has been rendered obsolete with the rise of web-sharing sites like YouTube. But to this end, at both sides of the technological arc, we are all filmmakers, unknowingly weaving our own stories with cameras and leaving them for future generations to find, watch, and appreciate anew.
When Morgan Dews’ grandmother Allis died in 2001 at the age of 89, she left behind a vast family record: Fifty hours of audio recordings, 201 home movies, and more than 300 pages of personal documents, all related to her life as a wife and mother. Culled from that material, Must Read After My Death is a heartbreaking portrait of an outwardly unassuming American family.
The film begins immediately with a confession by Allis – “I am not a housewife,” she says, “I have never been a housewife” – followed by the baring of a secret. Recording a Dictaphone message for his wife while on business in Australia, Charley mentions the local women who share his love of dancing: “I dance and I love to dance and so people say, well, ‘You like women,’ which I do. There have been three that are very interesting and very delightful, and each case it was simply a matter of saying almost like, ‘How about it?’ I’ll tell you about it when I get home, but they’re, they’re quite interesting people.” At first, and at best, the suggestion of infidelity in his words seems subtle and could easily be dismissed as nothing more than innocent marital playfulness were it not for a message Allis sends to Charley in which she mentions a trip she took to New York City with an unidentified man: “It was nothing spectacular. It was very relaxing and very nice and it certainly gives a gal a great big boost to see lines of care and tension flow away, and that was what happened, and I think, um, that his confidence was restored in himself. His parting remark was, ‘Someday I’ll tell you what you’ve done for me.’” Both husband and wife relate these stories with utter nonchalance, as though they were no more significant than a walk in the park or a trip to the local store. And yet, by opening his film with this information – Allis’ message is played only seconds after the ten-minute mark against coarse footage of Manhattan – Dews sets the tone for the remaining hour.
What follows is nothing short of the family’s near collapse. The first arguments we hear concern the mental health of son Bruce, whom Charley and Allis soon commit to an asylum; later, in a recorded discussion with female friends, Allis confesses her dismay over the institution, which is shot from the outside like a condemned old building, as a place where Bruce receives little attention and making zero progress. There is also Charley’s alcoholism, fostered by insecurities over his lack of an education. Despite – or even, Allis says, because of – a popular book he wrote on insurance, Charley falls into self-doubt over his abilities as the family breadwinner next to his more learned wife, who speaks four languages and completed a few years of college. Through audio recordings we’re privy to intense arguments, many in which Charley must face down his children over his need to be in control, and almost all of which end in shouting. Similarly, we hear Allis talk about letters she writes to their marriage counselor detailing the distance between her and her husband, an expanse only deepened by the knowledge, conveyed through home movies, that their open marriage persisted despite the hurt it so obviously caused both sides.
This is conveyed early in the film, when Charley’s recordings home are being played. We hear him deliver the following message, an interesting window into his complex and inconsistent frame of mind:
This one is for the kids. I realize, uh, in many ways I haven’t been a very good father. I’ve yelled at you kids too much, and I shouldn’t do that. I’ve yelled at Mommy too much, and I shouldn’t do that. But of course, as I’ve told Mommy, the only principle source of any unhappiness in our family, I think, is keeping the house picked up and looking like the place it should look like, and I’m thinking particularly about bedrooms. Keep them in decent order, and then you don’t have to worry about picking up the room because it automatically stays picked up, and if you’ll do that then I’ll do my part to try to be nicer and more pleasant and to spend more time with you. Is that a fair bargain?
Not all is disheartening, though. Per Mekas’ predictions, there are indeed true moments of beauty in Dews’ documentary: an image of a lone butterfly, its orange wings made even brighter by the white backdrop; a young boy, one of Allis and Charley’s sons, standing alone on a sidewalk; two large ships sailing slowly on the ocean. Instances like these are the foundation on which this film is built. The way in which Dews casts connections between visual and auditory record – between audio recordings and movies – demonstrates not only his familiarity with the material but also his good instincts as a filmmaker (this is his first feature). Recordings of Allis discussing sessions with the counselor is played against footage of the family’s car trudging down a snow-filled driveway. The image of the two ships slowly moving apart is accompanied by Allis’ thoughts to Charley that “I think maybe, in recent years, you and I have not talked to each other enough. I think communications have sort of broken down.” And the footage of the boy alone on the sidewalk is contrasted with Allis discussing how her doctor ridicules her for being “a non-conformist,” implying that the blame for all of their family problems rests on her shoulders.
According to the press material for this film, as well as other reviews, Morgan inherited his grandmother’s archive simply by chance: As a young boy he enjoyed setting up reels of home movies to watch, and so he asked for and inherited the films after Allis’ death; her Dictaphone recordings arrived on his doorstep later, courtesy of Dews’ uncle Bruce, who had transferred all of Allis’ letters to CD, and her audio recordings came to his attention only because of Bruce’s ex-wife. But revisiting old memories, especially as a feature film distributed throughout the world, was not a priority to members of his family. In an interview with Joan Dupont, Dews states that many of his relatives had to be persuaded to endorse his documentary: “They’ve been very supportive, but standoffish. When I first broached the idea they said, it sounds great, but they didn’t want to sign a release before seeing it. I showed them the completed film a year ago. I think it was not a great experience for them to watch.” Perhaps, in the years to come, time will lay its poetic veil for them, as well.