Charley and Allis in “Must Read After My Death.”
Domestic psychodramas set in the mid-20th century pique our curiosity because they expose the ugly truths hidden in that era’s idealism, the darkness behind the white picket fence. But while “Revolutionary Road” and “Mad Men” offer smart, often bleak dramatizations of desperation, neither is as jarringly horrific as Morgan Dews’ documentary, “Must Read After My Death.”
Allis and Charley (Dews never gives away the family name of his grandparents) documented their lives in unusual detail for pre-YouTube era. Because Charley spent four months a year on business in Australia, the couple bought matching Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorders and sent spools of spiels across the water. And that would have been wonderful, if Charley hadn’t been a monster of a husband.
Allis, an educated and worldly woman before she married Charley in 1946, was left in Hartford, Conn. to raise their children: Anne, Chuck, Bruce and Douglas. Charley, who believed in open marriage, fooled around Down Under and told his wife all about it in unsettling detail, even asking his girlfriends to sing into the microphone.
The balance of Charley’s concerns surrounded his family’s bad housekeeping. When he was home, he would drink and scream, and his unloving nature and hateful parenting resulted in psychological trauma for the children. One of them, Bruce, was institutionalized for a year, and Allis and the rest of her family were treated by a Dr. Theodore Lenn, who seemed only to exacerbate their misery.
The audiotapes provide the only narration, and are juxtaposed with often sunny, idealized images of Allis and Charley’s home and family. Dews quilts the audio recordings together with home movies and still photos to create a true-life suburban nightmare.
“Must Read After My Death,” named for a file of transcripts Allis left when she died in 2001, opens in New York theaters but can be seen nationwide starting today here. This documentary offers a strong argument for purchasing a new widescreen monitor — with independent film losing support at theaters, online viewing is its best refuge.