Any way you splice it, Web-streamed 'Must Read' is a must skip

The Baltimore Sun

A documentary about a mad 1960s household, Must Read After My Death, constructed out of tape, Dictaphone recordings and home movies, premieres theatrically today in New York and digitally everywhere via its distributor's Web site, The company charges $2.99 for a three-day "ticket," good for any number of viewings, and promises to stream the film in any quality up to high definition. Viewers will be able to adjust the image according to what looks right for their home screen.

After seeing the film on DVD, though, I doubt I would have gotten more out of it whether I dialed it down to VHS-quality or dialed it up to Blu-ray. Like Steven Soderbergh's dreary, little quiet-desperation movie Bubble, which promised a similar breakthrough when it opened simultaneously in theaters and on DVD and HDNet Movies, Must Read After My Death is the wrong film to anchor a major distribution event. It manages to make an open marriage and domestic disaster boring. The story involves such incendiary topics as the male bias of psychiatry as practiced in America at mid-century and the overuse of behavior-altering drugs. But the movie pulls off the astonishing feat of making these topics appear less significant as it stumbles to its conclusion. The "found" imagery is opaque, not eloquent. The picture shrinks as its underlying story expands.

Gigantic Digital's goal - to move "the enjoyment of independent cinema into the 21st century" - isn't served when its debut hinges on a family narrative that is tortuous in its construction as well as its content. Morgan Dews, the filmmaker, thought he'd found a psychodramatic treasure trove when he dug into a home archive of a loving grandmother named Allis, who had kept an enormous stash of audio recordings and 8 mm movies. And in a way, he did. But using them as his only creative building blocks proves to be his downfall.

Dews has stated that he built this film as carefully as a carpenter does a cabinet. The design is waterproof and airtight only in his mind. Advancing in a rough chronology on the audio track as the screen fills with commonplace, nonchronological images of a deceptively serene suburbia (in this case, a leafy neighborhood in Hartford, Conn.), the movie alienates you emotionally and intellectually. Dews wants his viewers to do the work of an artist for him: carving order out of chaos. His way of staying true to his material, oddly enough, isn't that different from primitive pulp fiction. He makes viewers puzzle out Allis' family dynamics with her often-absent husband and four children, titillating audiences with sounds of grotesque behavior and hints of disasters yet to come. He withholds information and enters the narrative only to punch home a dire climax or two.

Paradoxically, on paper Allis' story sounds fascinating. She was a talented woman - a singer who subjugated her own creative drive to motherhood when she fell in love with a guy named Charley, whose impact convinced her they would make wonderful children together. It was the second marriage for both (they were married to others when they met), and at first it sounds like a consuming love affair. But they soon became uneasy partners in an open marriage (away for months at a time, Charley exploited it more than she did), and Charley, an insurance executive with a vigorous sex drive and no emotional intelligence, made Allis' primary job the tending of a well-kept home. The family spirals into serial catastrophes as the three sons and one daughter suffer from the couple's fighting and engage in knockdown emotional bouts of their own.

If you get this far (this is one very long 75-minute movie), you listen, horrified, as a shrink pins the blame for all this rampant dysfunction on the mother, yet refuses to let her consider leaving her husband and children. Even at that point, the movie fails to become gripping or illuminating. The disconnect between the images and the recordings is too cheaply ironic and repetitive. At the end (SPOILER ALERT!), Dews discloses that Allis was his grandmother. The movie might have been more compelling if he'd admitted that at the beginning and involved us in his grandparents' existential exhumation.

Watching Must Read After My Death made me realize what we lose when we see movies - even arch, precious art movies - on individual monitors rather than on a theater screen. If you're fiddling with the dials that control the visual quality and the volume on a laptop, you may trick yourself into thinking you're experiencing genuine interactivity. But when you see a film with the ace presentation of a great old movie house like the Senator, the big screen operates like a truth detector, and the audience response either reveals something of quality in the picture or offers the balm of shared derision.

I applaud Gigantic's desire to bring independent-film distribution into the new-millennial cutting edge. But I'll judge its success only after the company has streamed more real, live movies.

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