51 BIRCH STREET (Doug Block, 2006)
posted by Akiva
Dad has an announcement. Three months after his wife of 54 years (and your mother) died suddenly of pneumonia, he has decided to marry Kitty – you know, Kitty, his former secretary, the one you can find hiding in the corners of the yellowing photographs from your 1966 Bar Mitzvah. Oh, and Dad’s selling the house, the suburban lot in Port Washington, New York that you and your two sisters grew up in, and moving to Florida. You can be the best man at his wedding, where you’ll toast his newfound happiness and watch the happy couple dance to their favorite song…“Only You.” You don’t even need to comment on the uncomfortable (and borderline offensive) irony of their song choice, at least not until you make an unflinching and intensely moving first-person documentary reevaluating the dynamics of your parents’ marriage.
A storyteller by profession, Doug Block is immediately interested in probing the roots of his father’s impulsive decision, even as he wonders why a son would even want to know these things. How long had Dad been involved with Kitty before they fortuitously “reconnected”? Had he been two-timing Mom for decades? Of course, the truth is much more complicated. As the family prepares for Dad and Kitty’s exile from 51 Birch Street, Doug sorts through his mother’s collected works, including her poetry, her eating diaries, assorted articles from Ms. Magazine, and thousands of pages of personal journals, eventually discovering the darkest secrets of a suburban housewife fed up with an unfulfilling marriage and seeking other outlets for creative and sexual expression. It was Mom, the frustrated intellectual and introspective seeker, who led a compartmentalized existence and strayed from the bounds of her marriage. It was Mom who made explicit sexual advances towards her therapist, who furtively fooled around with a family friend in a movie theater while her husband and son sat next to her, eyes glued to the screen. It was Mom – not emotionally vacant, strong-and-silent-type Dad – who the kids never knew at all.
“Do I have the right?” Doug wonders. On the one hand, secrets are secrets, and diaries are private for a reason. But is there a statute of limitations on secrets? Nobody cries foul when we publish the innermost thoughts of Kafka, or Henry James, or even Bridget Jones. Why keep a personal diary if we plan to lock it up? Isn’t a part of ourselves convinced that even our darkest personal secrets might be understood – or even justified – in some future time? 51 Birch Street is one of the most affecting investigative documentaries I’ve ever seen, in large part because it answers the latter question in the affirmative without losing sight of the ethical dilemma in the foreground.
51 Birch Street also paints a staggering portrait of postwar suburbia, a place where women sometimes chose husbands based on their posture and hair color, and only later had the luxury of wondering if there was more to life than keeping the house clean. In his mother’s diaries, Doug tracks the effects of Women’s Lib, the Sexual Revolution, and most of all, the rise of therapy on his mother’s consciousness. For their part, the men of the period – and one daughter describes this documentary’s protagonist as “such a 1950s dad” – seemed to have little understanding of their own desires. “Speak only good of the past” is the closest thing he has to a credo, but certainly Dad could have saved himself a lot of time by marrying the pliable, complacent Kitty 50 years ago rather than the passionate, soon-to-be-stifled poet he selected to bear his children.
Part of the magic of 51 Birch Street – which shares the humanistic texture of Ross McElwee’s best diary films, and reminds me of other recent family-discovery projects like Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect and the celebrated Capturing the Friedmans – is the way in which Doug’s filmed interviews with his septuagenarian father really do amount to the forging of a relationship. It’s as if the camera gives Doug the courage to ask the questions that would have sounded impertinent years before. (“No, I can’t say I miss her,” Dad says of his former life partner.) In one scene, Doug hands the camera to Dad and attempts to answer a question about his own stabs at happiness in an imperfect marriage. The scene ends with an intimate intergenerational handshake, the camera hovering above two hands, two wedding rings.
After Dad pulls out of the Birch Street driveway to begin domestic life anew, Doug’s camera watches the car turn the corner. We expect ourselves to correct the errors of our parents’ generation, but what can we do when the deepest mistakes take such time to unearth?
[51 Birch Street is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.]