In 51 Birch Street, the curtain is pulled back on the 50-year history of a suburban marriage, uncovering a multilayered mystery comprised of the day-to-day details of two people whose interior lives were unexpected, heartbreaking, and then unexpected again. This is not Blue Velvet, where a dive under the hissing summer lawns reveals the squirming beetles and worms of the suburban subconscious. The mystery that pulls us in through the doors of the unassuming, well-groomed house at 51 Birch Street is altogether more mundane, yet never less than universal in the implications derived from its specificity, and leads us, and the filmmaker, down paths we might never have known existed had our glance fallen slightly left or right of where it ultimately lands.
Filmmaker Doug Brock, a 50-ish documentary filmmaker who earns a living in between projects shooting wedding videos, finds himself doing the same for his parents’ 50th anniversary party. Mina and Mike Brock have raised three children in the house—two daughters and Doug, the youngest—and although the marriage is not outwardly expressive, Doug and his sisters have always assumed their parents had a quite typically stable and reciprocally understanding relationship. Doug’s relationship with his father is a fairly closed-off one—the son expressed little patience with the interests and hobbies of his mechanical engineer father, who often retreated into office work, or projects in the basement, rather than spending time getting to know his kids. Yet Doug’s relationship with his mother is strong, and the one-on-one interviews he conducts with her are filled with humor, mutual respect and love. When Doug’s mother unexpectedly dies not long after that 50th anniversary, the filmmaker and his siblings are understandably devastated, yet little is said of father Mike’s reaction, which seems curiously muted.
Three months later, Mike drops a bombshell—he’s selling the house at 51 Birch Street, moving to Florida and, oh, yes, getting married to a woman he once worked with some 35 years earlier. The Block children try to remain supportive even as they attempt to sort through their confusion over their father’s behavior, which seems more animated and alive in the afterglow of his remarriage than it ever was before. During the process of the move, some 40 years worth of journals written by Mina are uncovered, journals which on the surface indicate an interior life Doug never suspected for his mother, journals which may reveal more than he really wants to know about the reality of the emotional battle at the heart of his parents’ marriage.
51 Birch Street succeeds as first-rate investigate journalism of an extremely personal nature because it doesn’t dodge the moral quandary Block finds himself in. Has he got a right to read his mother’s journals? How much of what he finds and reads is acceptable to share in a film, even one that might serve to illuminate her character in a way she strove to achieve, through years of psychotherapy and social activism and experimentation, for herself? Did she know, as seems to be apparent, about his father’s perhaps adulterous relationship with the woman who is now his wife? And will what Doug finds out about how his mother really felt about his father, and details of his father’s behavior toward her, help him to connect with his father or build yet another wall between them?
The glory of the journey Block takes himself, and takes us on, in 51 Birch Street is in the discovery of the various realities of that relationship, which are themselves fraught with further unexpected revelations that deepen the movie’s central theme of a child’s need to know his or her parents. The movie is beautifully shot through with pain and ambiguity, as seen in each and every close-up of the seemingly renewed Mike, and in a doubling pair of shots—his mother, seen from the bottom of a short flight of stairs, who objects to being filmed from a low angle and comically barricades herself in the bathroom; and later, a shot from the same angle of Kitty, Doug’s new stepmother, packing some things away and tossing other things out. Block’s camera is extraordinarily perceptive and sensitive to each of the main players in the story— Mina, Mike, Kitty, sisters Ellen and Karen, and even Mina’s closest friend Natasha, are each given space on camera to live and breathe and tell aspects of their story simply through their careworn faces and their ease (or lack thereof) at being subjects for Block's camera. And the movie, which has been extraordinarily perceptive throughout, deepens as Block begins the frightening navigation through those journals, parsing out to us only those moments which productively illustrate what his mother was going through in a marriage that was not at all what it seemed to the children.
51 Birch Street, in its exploration and divulgement of the partial contents of these diaries, has come under fire from some reviewers for being self-serving and narcissistic at best—Block has been accused of using his parents’ personal history as a crass form of public therapy—to craven and manipulative at worst—invasion of privacy as the basis for amoral nonfiction titillation. And if one were to hear of Block using his mother’s journals as a tool for his discovery of his parents' inner lives without experiencing the sincerity and sensitivity he brings to framing the entirety of the film—if the act of reportage based on these journals is taken completely out of context—then there might be some truth to those charges. However, Block’s investigation is of a woman whom he comes to somewhat painfully realize was never truly known by anyone, least of all her husband. When he bluntly asks Natasha if she thinks his mother would want him to read the journals (and share them, to some extent, with us), she thinks for a moment, her features tightened in pained ambivalence, then blurts out, “Yes.” It’s a surprising moment, because the movie seems to be building, at that point, toward some sort of recognition of the boundaries of secrecy restricting Block's investigation. But Natasha rather shockingly reminds him (and us) of the special bond he shared with his mother and insists that this woman, who wanted so desperately to be known, would most have wanted to be known by her son. It’s a sort of approval granted by proxy, and Block never does use it as an excuse to turn the movie into an opportunity to glorify his mother by painting a complete picture from her pained autobiographical essence. He reads silently, tells us what he thinks we need to know to illuminate our understanding, and keeps the rest to himself. Some things truly are best left to family.
Block’s spectacular achievement here is rendered completely on a small scale, but it’s within that small scale that the detail and resonance of the cold war that his parents experienced holds its power. Just when you think you’ve gained an understanding of one of the main characters, 51 Birch Street makes you see that you really haven’t, and that people are capable of truly profound wrinkles of character. By the time the movie sets on its final course—Block’s attempt to reach a level of communication and understanding with his heretofore closed-off father—it takes on the powerful quality of a universal story, one told through tears shed over a lost past and the promise of a new future. This is a breathtaking piece of nonfiction filmmaking, a work of art, a film that would be worthwhile for every family to see.
And if you missed it during its theatrical run (it played successfully nationwide for seven months, though its appearance here in Los Angeles was shamefully brief), you’re going to get your chance tonight. The documentary, which by all rights should have been among the five nominated for the Academy Award this year (it makes the artistic achievement of An Inconvenient Truth, for all of its sincere global implications and glorification of Al Gore, look pretty meek indeed), will get its American broadcast premiere tonight on Cinemax at 7:00 p.m. EST/4:00 p.m. PST.
(For further scheduled screenings, click here. For a look at the trailer, click here. And after you’ve seen the movie, check out the detailed Web site.)
Doug Block even has a blog entitled Around the Block, well worth checking out as a source for further information on 51 Birch Street, but also as an avenue for investigating the processes and art of making contemporary documentary films.
And if Cinemax is beyond your reach as a cable or digital TV subscriber, fret not. Block promises the DVD release of 51 Birch Street, scheduled for August 14, will have lots of incidental material, including reactions of the Block family to the film itself.
Speaking of documentaries, it’s a good month for catching up on a couple that I desperately wanted to see last fall but missed, and if you missed them too, then we can catch them together and have a little talk further on down the road. Monday night the wonderful IFC TV Channel began a month-long rotation of Eric Steel’s haunted, agonizingly lyrical documentary about the attraction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge for despairing suicide jumpers entitled The Bridge. If you missed it tonight, IFC has a schedule of further showings, which include May 17 at 4:25 a.m. EST/1:25 a.m. PST and again on June 1 at 2:15 a.m. EST/11:15 p.m. PST. I had to stop midstream with The Bridge in order to write this post, but I’ll be returning to it before I go to sleep tonight, though I’m honestly a bit nervous as to how this ethereal, insinuating film might lodge itself in my own dreamscape. And I’ll be curious to ruminate on one of the big discussions raised in the movie’s shadow—that of how suicide is discussed in this country, and whether a person with suicidal tendencies should see The Bridge. (Jim Emerson held a couple of fascinating forums on the film and these subjects last fall on his blog, Scanners.)
Also, I’m looking forward to the DVD release tomorrow of the wrenching documentary Deliver Us from Evil, an unflinching look at the devastation wrought by a Catholic priest who also happens to be an unrepentant pedophile.
Please let me know if you’ve seen any of these films, or what you think of them when you finally do see them. I’d love to hear about and discuss with you how your reactions rattle and resonate with my own.