I’m not sure where you spent this past weekend but I’ve just returned from an invigorating trip to the future. That’s right. The bad news? Still no flying cars. The good news? Independent film is alive and well though most of the new releases don’t open at your local cineplex. They open on your computer.
Recently an e-mail caught my eye. It was from a former Miramax distribution head by the name of Mark Lipsky and its subject line read “R.I.P. Independent Film.” “Unless a film is overstuffed with movie stars or the director is internationally renowned or the distributor is backed by tens of millions in marketing dollars or the film has won the Palme D’or at Cannes,” Mr. Lipsky lamented, an independent production stands little chance of finding an audience any longer.
“It’s been a bloody and painful downward spiral for the past decade and the final nail has been driven into the coffin,” he continued, “unless a compassionate and open-minded media can summon the courage to forego the familiar and safe and embrace the future.”
It might have been nice if he’d thrown in “devilishly handsome” or even “penetratingly insightful” but I decided to let that pass. After all, we here at Film Threat are nothing if not compassionate and open-minded. So I asked Mr. Lipsky about his vision for a new model, the “pioneering new method for independent film distribution that Gigantic Releasing will introduce with (its) February 20 national release of director Morgan Dews’ award-winning Must Read After My Death.”
He described the experiment as “the only hope for a return to what, for decades, had been a vital, challenging and exciting art form.” “On the 20th,” he explained, ”Dews’ deeply moving documentary will open in theaters in New York and, at the very same moment, it will be accessible to every broadband-enabled household in America. Technically, this will be the widest first-run release of any film in history.”
Talk about coming soon to a theater near you. OK, so the question isn’t whether Gigantic’s gambit is noble, bold and innovative. The question right now is should you see Must Read After My Death and the answer is of course. It’s mesmerizing. With 100% certainty I can assert that it is not too soon to short list this for Best Documentary of the year. And bear in mind I said the same way back in August about Man on Wire.
Imagine a cinematic salad tossed with bits from a Richard Yates novel-say Revolutionary Road, possessing the flavor of a Douglas Sirk film, spiced with dashes of The Ice Storm, Running With Scissors and Far From Heaven and you have some idea as to the tone and topic of Dews’ feature length debut which, by the way, has wowed audiences and judges alike on the festival circuit.
Shortly after the death of his grandmother, Allis, in 2001 the filmmaker came across a remarkable collection of home movies, Dictaphone and tape recordings, photographs and letters. “When I found out about the box,” Dews has recalled in interviews, “the decision to make the film sort of made me. There was an amazing story inside…I wasn’t sure what it was but I knew that if I listened hard enough, Allis would tell me.”
What she tells is her story, the story of a woman trapped between two worlds. On one hand, she lived the life of a typical wife and mother in the Connecticut suburbs of the early 60s. She had a husband named Charley-an insurance executive-four children and a house with a white picket fence. On the other, she lived a lie. While her marriage looked from the outside like a spin off of The Donna Reed Show, behind closed doors it was a horror show.
She and Charley had an open marriage and the Dictaphone messages he would send while away on business often described his dalliances in detail. For Allis, this freedom was largely theoretical since she was stuck in the suburbs doing laundry, cooking meals and raising the kids. The only thing worse than Charley being away, we discover, was Charley being home.
He was a heavy drinking, wildly insecure nutjob who rode his family mercilessly about the importance of keeping the house in order (“especially the bedrooms”) and was capable of violence. Screaming fights were a regular occurrence and Allis taped many hours of these along with her expressions of concern for the children and reflections on the direction her life had taken and whether or not it was too late to change it.
Therapy only made matters worse. One of the kids wound up in an institution, another left home because of the toxic environment and, not surprisingly since all the analysts were male and this was the 1960s, Allis somehow was assigned the blame for her family’s implosion. Against all odds and to her great credit, however, she never stopped second guessing the people who had power over her and fighting for control of her life. She was a woman ahead of her time.
Watching the American nightmare of Must Read After My Death play out, it’s impossible not to be both horrified and powerfully moved. Impossible as well not to feel profound admiration for the artfulness with which Dews has pieced these archival cries for help into a singular creation anyone who appreciates first rate filmmaking absolutely must see.
You can access the film at www.giganticdigital.com beginning Friday, February 20th at 10 am. The price is $2.99 per 3-day, unlimited viewing ticket. The film will be streamed in up to HD quality and commercial-free.