October 23, 2006

Cornell Cinema

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When talking with the director, Doug Block, of 51 Birch Street, I used the word “extraordinary” to describe his documentary. My head told me it wasn’t the appropriate word, but I couldn’t help feeling it fit. True, the topic of 51 Birch Street, Mr. Block’s heart-wrenching (hmm, problematic) attempt to understand his parents, is anything but extraordinary. It comes closer than most docs to the Human Story, as we all have parents and we all don’t entirely understand them. So universal that, as a recent article in The New York Times pointed out, both Israeli television and Al-Jazeera have optioned for rights to show the documentary.

But I also know that I felt more displaced after watching this documentary, more jostled, more reflective, then after most movies I’ve seen. It is this duality that makes 51 Birch Street so extraordinary, like a spaceship ride to the backyard. This is a complex, meditative film that would enrich the life experience of any child who saw it, which is to say that everyone would benefit from watching this film.

Doug Block, a long-time independent documentarion, producer and cameraman, decided to start filming his parents years ago, asking them questions and just conversing on camera. Was this a subconscious attempt to understand his parents? “Any taping I did with them over the years was simply for me and my sisters to have for posterity,” Doug told me in email conversation, “in the same way anyone shoots home video of their family for posterity.”

However, his camera would capture more than the quotidian when his mother, Mina Block, passed away in 2002. Three months later, his unremorseful father, Mike Block, married his secretary from 35 years ago, Kitty. Doug was now set on an irreversible course through which, whether he liked it or not, he would see his parents in a whole new light.

Without his mother there to “fill in awkward moments,” Doug attempts to get in touch with his father — a task with little groundwork. “No matter how old I get,” Doug narrates, “I always feel like a kid around my dad.” While his sister Ellen thought her father’s remarriage was an “insult” to Mina, Doug didn’t feel any resentment or bitterness. “Bitterness never entered the picture for me at all,” he told me. “Nor anger. Just sadness. And an overpowering desire to get to know my father better before it was too late.”

Doug always remembered his father as a stern, stoic dad, not the beaming, content dad he witnessed repeatedly saying “I love you” to Kitty at their wedding. He could feel, as he said to me, no resentment for Kitty, happy for his father and indeed “gratitude that my father was not only being taken care of but clearly loved her.” Still, he could not just forget his mother, whom his dad chillingly admits to not missing in the film. What about her? Were his parents ever really happy together?

The truth, as he and his sisters discover through Mina’s copious diary entries, will hurt. Mina was often unhappy in their marriage, and it is revealed that both Mina and Mike had to look outside of their marriage for true happiness. But like so many other “happy” couples of the 50s, divorce was not an option, which meant that both parents would suffer, with Mina in particular feeling stifled in her role as a “frozen-faced suburbanite.”

At this point, as Doug actively leafs through his mother’s journals and tries to understand his parents, the film assumes a passive, melancholy tone. It is difficult not to reflect on your own parents while watching the film and wonder if they are or were ever happy. Can you view your mother, as Doug reflects on his own mother, not just as a parent, but as a woman? Could you accept the knowledge of your parents’ unhappy, but inextricable relationship?

51 Birch Street, however, is not a depressing film. Indeed, Doug does achieve a greater understanding of his mother and, ultimately, in the film’s tender, penultimate scene, reconciles his relationship with his father. He renders a roughhewn peace with their stormy relationship by finding solace in their individuality. And in doing so, I think Mr. Block has stumbled upon a tenet of filial philosophy: we can never understand our parents, but Mom and Dad are always there to tell their story.