51 Birch Street

51 Birch Street (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Doug Block
viewed: 03/21/08

51 Birch Street is a documentary shot on video, featuring some semi-home movies, in which director Doug Block merely wanted to catch his parents in their actuality, talking about their lives a bit, not so much for creating a theatrical film, but simply for posterity.  But after his mother dies, his father suddenly shacks up with a former secretary, who he had been close to for 35 years, triggering a series of reactions and questions in his children about the reality of his parents’ relationship.

Block’s mother, who battled depression in the mid-1960’s, started detailed diaries, notebooks and notebooks of them, boxes of them.  These also come to surface when his father marries his former secretary and leaves the house that he’d live in for more than 50 years of marriage.

Block dives into this material and his exploration of his mother and father and their relationship has true depths, attempting to understand the mysteries that have surfaced, understanding the hidden lives and the surface lives of his parents.  Perhaps this is a really interesting thing, in a sense, for anyone.  Understanding our parents, who we are too young to understand when they are young, who we know as protectors and teachers and nurturers, more powerful than us as children, but who as we become adults ourselves, do try to understand as people who we could have known or identified with.  We always have the years of separation from ever really knowing.

Block delves pretty hard, going through the reams of diaries, photographs, effluvia.  He turns the camera on himself (quite literally), putting his own marriage and children under the lens as well, personalizing beyond an already highly personal story.

This is part of the film’s strengths but also its weaknesses.  It’s very touchy-feely, soft-hearted, and whiny.  And ultimately, the film’s subject matter isn’t really as rich as he feels it is.  In fact, maybe this film would be more interesting made by someone else, with more distance and objectivity…the opposite of this film’s approach.  It is interesting, but in thinking of the crazy story that is Crazy Love (2007), another documentary about a New York man and woman and their long story (only vaguely similar — this is a bit of a stretch to compare them), but the core story of Crazy Love is actually much, much more fascinating.

Maybe Block shouldn’t have made 51 Birch Street, a question that he asks in the film more than once.  Maybe it isn’t as significant a story to sit through.  Maybe it is more a small tale, a segment of something potentially bigger.

The film did make me think about my own marriage and my children, as well as the break-up of my parents’ marriage and the secrets and reality that I was unaware of as a child.  It’s not that I didn’t find the movie somewhat provocative, just ultimately not all that interesting and not all that special.

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