A generation ago the technology first became widely available to allow families to document their lives with home movies and audio recordings. The use of these artifacts has transcended the “can you believe I used to look like that” and “remember that trip” family viewings and provided the materials for extraordinary films like Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, exploring the chasm between the sunny footage of birthdays and beach visits and the longing, failure, betrayal, and loss that was going on inside.
Film-maker Morgan Dews is the grand-son of a woman named Allis, who left behind a suitcase of home movies, ten hours of dictaphone letters sent to her husband on his annual four-month business trips to Australia, and tapes recorded for herself or for therapists consulted by the family. And there was a file of tape transcripts and notes labeled Must Read After My Death.
That became the title of a film assembled from these recordings, opening today in New York and Los Angeles and available everywhere via Gigantic Digital. The haunting images of Allis, her husband Charley, and their children, Chuck, Doug, Bruce, and Anne flicker on screen as we hear the recordings. The juxtaposition is artfully done and utterly heart-rending, the cheery footage of children playing as we hear the family fall apart.
At first, the words fit the “Leave it to Beaver” images of life in the tony Connecticut suburbs of the 1950’s and 60’s as Allis and the children make records tell Charley how much they miss him and he responds by telling them he loves them. But then, so matter-of-factly we wonder if we hear it correctly, Charley tells Allis about his involvement with other women and even asks for her help. And by the time the recording device has switched to reel-to-reel magnetic tape, the kids are beginning to reflect the anguish at home. Halfway between a time capsule and a Cheever story, we see the particularly of this family’s dysfunction and disintegration but it is the elements of its era make it so powerful. The suffocating restrictions on Allis as she tries to find a way to hold onto a sense of herself at a time when therapists were handing out tranquilizers and telling her to let her husband be the boss. In one tape we hear her decide that while she would like to work it would be better for her son for her to stay home — for another ten years.
Movies like “Revolutionary Road” and “American Beauty” cannot come close to the art and authenticity of this one in portraying the tragedy behind the manicured lawns and shiny appliances of the suburbs. The urgency of Allis’ message to us — not “please” but “must read” — is most honorably discharged by her grandson and the story she left behind lets us hear the voice that was almost silenced.
If you like this, try: Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, Tell Them Who You Are, and This American Life’s superb episode of found audio, including tapes found in a thrift store that were recorded by parents to send to their son in medical school. And this interview with Morgan Daws has more information about the film and the family and how they feel about using Allis’ recordings.