2008 Denver International Film Festival
The “memoir movie,” though often a trial of unearned self-importance, can often yield great bounty, as with the staggering gem Running Stumbled from a few years back. There, the focus remained insulated and narrow, but the film had the good sense to be sick, demented, off-putting, and unfailingly entertaining. Threats were made, attacks were planned, and true, unvarnished mental illness was laid bare for the entire world to see. It understood that if you’re going to subject us to your family, they’d better be lunatics on the verge of on-screen suicides. At its worst, though, as in Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death, exploitation is avoided for mere “trouble,” which in this case means that dad was a fascist tyrant because he may have asked his sons to pick up their rooms now and again. The two Connecticut sots in question – Allis and Charley – are selfish, vain, and dull, and at no point do they justify their centrality to a motion picture. Sure, grandson Morgan found Allis’ collection of home movies and audio diaries, but who asked that he spend years mulling through their contents, fire up the Mac, and offer little more than the nugget that people be crazy?
Only Allis and Charley aren’t crazy, at least not in the shit-eating, running-naked-through-the-streets-at-midnight variety. Charley’s away most of the year on business, which means he commits adultery again and again, but this pretty much makes the old man as common as dirt, not the object of scorn and disgust we’re expected to loathe on sight. Oh, and kiddies? He’s earning a goddamn living, for chrissakes. I’m sorry mommy is unfulfilled at home and all, but someone needs to keep the lights on. The tapes, in addition to recording Allis’ banal musings for years on end, record “live” fights among family members, though Charley sounds pretty reasonable throughout. Is he verbally abusive and condescending, as Allis seems to claim with alarming frequency? I failed to find any evidence of either charge, and simply heard an exhausted breadwinner trying like hell to feign interest in a colossally boring family. Because these tapes were pulled from the 1960s, we’re supposed to infer a pre-feminist message of sorts; you know, the one that says women were burdened by sexist assumptions, and men got to wave their dicks around with impunity and without consequence. Bullshit then, bullshit now.
Instead of actually listening to these creeps discuss therapy, journals, and the one kid who sounds like a gurgling retard (the film claims he suffered only from dyslexia), my mind wandered with rage as I couldn’t help but think that film festivals, for all of their charm, cause untold damage by encouraging these “cathartic” pictures about family. You mean mom and dad weren’t perfect? That it’s an impossible dream to expect two human beings, especially those in close quarters with kids about, to make eyes, blow kisses, and giggle like school children for decades on end? Again, we all know these things: marriage is hard, raising a family even harder, and suburban life usually masks rage, addiction, and perversion. So why hasn’t the independent filmmaker received the memo? If it ain’t George and Martha battling before our eyes like Ali-Frazier III, then leave it for your descendents alone, not paying customers who naively expect to be challenged now and again.
Maybe one could interpret the documentary as an indictment of therapy itself, only these people love it too much to bolster that impression. Charley, for all of his sins (he wonders why he returns from fucking women not his wife to a filthy abode) is a downy lamb compared to Allis, who apparently fails to do the housework because she can’t keep away from the tape recorder. Many of these recordings are also LPs that were made to keep in touch with daddy while he was away. Perhaps Charley was a cocksucker at heart, but I couldn’t locate the bastard within, what with the volumes of loving words directed at the kids and all. So why the fuck was the movie made? To show that a woman left to her own devices will record everything not nailed down, and film even more? Who in the hell takes so many photos, anyway? For a person who hates her life with such relish, you’d think she wouldn’t want to fill a warehouse with so many reminders of its pitiless march.