Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Happy Family

51 BIRCH STREET
(Doug Block, USA, 2005, BetaSP, 88 mins.)


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Mike and Mina Block

All happy families resemble one another,
but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

-- Leo Tolstoy

*****

To the cynic, documentaries should only be made about special people, i.e. the famous and should-be-famous. To the humanist, all people are special. Yet the world is overpopulated by dull docs, because not all directors ask the best questions, get out of the way when necessary, etc. As a viewer, I fall into the latter (humanist) category. While some subjects may be inherently fascinating, an inept filmmaker can render anything boring. A talented one, on the other hand, can make a great film about anything if they go about it the right way.

Of course, I'm not suggesting there's only one way to approach a subject. All the ways haven't been invented yet. One form that is gaining in popularity is the first-person documentary. I give much of the credit--or blame, if you dislike the genre--to Ross McElwee (Sherman's March), whose films are all grounded in autobiography. Plus, he always narrates and injects himself in the action. He's friendly and forthcoming, so I find him to be a genial guide into the subjects he explores. On the basis of 51 Birch Street, I feel the same about Doug Block.

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Doug and Mina Block
Block set out to make a film about his parents, Mike and Mina, and their 54-year marriage. I don't think they were all that thrilled with the idea, but they gave their consent. Block begins by talking to both of them. His mother takes to his digital camcorder like a fish to water. I found her instantly engaging. Block admits he was never very close to his dad. Not too surprisingly, Mike is pretty tight-lipped in those initial interviews. Then, out of the blue, Mina contracts pneumonia and dies.
Block is devastated. There's a gaping hole in his life. Briefly, there's a gaping hole in the film. Without her involvement, how is he going to complete this project? Should he even try? Well, aside from the letters, home movies, and snapshots (his father was an amateur photographer), it turns out that Mina kept a journal--actually, she kept what looks like dozens, possibly hundreds of journals. Block forges ahead. Over the course of the film, he finds that Mina and Mike's marriage--and by extension his entire childhood--was a lie. A benevolent lie, perhaps, but a lie, nonetheless.
The first clue comes when Block asks his father, point blank, if he misses Mina. Mike says no, he doesn't. Not at all. Their marriage may not have been a happy one, but Mike's candor still comes as a shock to his son. Even more shocking is when the 83-year-old gets hitched only three months after his wife's death--to his former secretary, Kitty. Block starts to wonder if his dad was fooling around with her during his marriage to Mina. Mike denies any infidelity, but the doubts linger.
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Doug and Mike Block--then
Block is pleased his father is moving on, but he's also conflicted. Unlike Mike, he and his sisters, Ellen and Karen, miss their mother. The sudden remarriage to a past associate seems disrespectful to her memory. But there's more to it than that. Around Kitty, Mike starts to become less guarded and more affectionate. Consequently, as Block continues to interview him, the man opens up more.
It's got to be a discomforting experience for anyone who loves a parent, i.e. to see their death free the other to become the kind of person their children could only dream about. And now they're fully grown. Yet it isn't Mina's fault that Mike wasn't happy. As her journals reveal, she was unhappy, too. She kept it from the kids, but after years of psychotherapy, concludes that she was born at the wrong time. She never had the opportunity to pursue her interests. She had three kids in quick succession and Mike was always at work. Someone had to stay home to raise them.
There are more revelations to come, but that's the gist of the film. Although I wasn't reminded of my own parents, I was reminded of my paternal grandparents. When my parents realized their marriage was untenable, they divorced. This was a different era, the late-1960s. The Catholicism of their respective families might have complicated matters, except my parents weren't devout. My grandfather is another story. He was married to my grandmother until she died--of pneumonia. And he didn't sit around mourning either. Just as Block's father trades Long Island for Florida, my grandfather exchanged Hartford for Dublin and married his childhood sweetheart, who had been waiting for him since the 1920s. They had a few good years, but they were elderly and frail. First she died, then he followed suit.
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The whole Block gang
I would like to believe that my father's parents loved each other, but I doubt it. My grandfather was a fugitive from Ireland when he married his first wife, shortly after his arrival at Ellis Island in 1930. Instant green card. My point in bringing this up: Block's story may seem specific, but like the best autobiographical stories, it has surprising resonance. Anyone can feel a connection to it, even if they weren't born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1950s Long Island. An unhappy marriage is a universal thing. We all know one or have even been part of one. Fortunately, this is not a depressing movie. Mike Block couldn't be happier with his new life.
To return to my point about first-person documentaries, I believe it's the only form Block could've used to tell this particular tale. On occasion, he includes outside voices (a family friend, an author), but for the most part, 51 Birch Street is his perspective on his parents. Had someone else made the film, it might look completely different, but he's remarkably even-handed. Block admits his biases up front, yet he's still fair to both parents. On the surface, my grandfather's story may seem more exciting, but I'm not a filmmaker. I couldn't have done what Block has done here. Recommended to anyone who's ever had a family--happy or otherwise.
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Doug and Mike Block--now
We're a happy family
Me mom and daddy.

-- The Ramones
*****
51 Birch Street plays the Northwest Film Forum Jan. 12-18, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

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