It was, literally, a Pandora’s Box. Better yet, make that ‘boxes’. Three cardboard crates sitting on the floor of the title address, thirty years of a mother’s private recollections locked deep inside the numerous wire bound notebooks. For still grieving filmmaker Doug Block, the dilemma was severe. Desperate to remain connected to his deceased parent, he was also troubled by a sickening sense that he was, somehow, disrespecting her memory and her marriage by prying into this vault of familial secrets. Block had always suspected there was a rift between his closest kin, an unspoken secret that, for all intents and purposes, manifested itself three months after the funeral. It was during a trip to Florida that Block’s father Mike picked up the phone and informed his adult children that he was marrying his secretary, a whispered about woman named Kitty, from 30 years before.
Thus began the wave of rumors and innuendo, siblings who thought they had a handle on their father suddenly faced a lifetime of possible lies and imagined decent…except, reality doesn’t always play out like the movies. And as he proves in his brilliant deconstruction of the unusual unit known as a family, Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street bends the rules in order to tell the truth. As a fledgling filmmaker who shoots weddings to supplement his documentary dreams, this director has seen a lot of couples come and go. He can usually predict the partnerships that will last from those that won’t make it past the reception. But he never imagined that when he turned his camera on mother Minn and father Mike for their 54th wedding anniversary, it would be for the last time as husband and wife, parent and guardian, and happy and contented couple.
As a movie, 51 Birch Street is the creative counterpoint to Capturing the Friedmans. It’s not out to unlock legal woes or cast doubt on an accused pedophile’s guilt or innocence. Instead, this is a smaller, more focused film, a most intimate of looks at how life can throw you crater-sized curveballs just when you think you’ve got everything in focus. The rapid changes that occur in the six months between an idolized parent’s passing and some record breaking rebound nuptials are seismic in their significance. They seem to tell us, the audience, quite a bit about the Block family undercurrent. Indeed, there is a substantial subtext of unease and angst among these relatives. An older sister is startled that dad would disrespect her mother’s legacy so. The other daughter is delighted – though tentative – about her father’s newfound happiness. Caught in the middle is Doug, detached from the only meaningful male presence in his world and wondering what he’s missed.
Turns out, the Block marriage was a myth, a coming together of two totally divergent personality types that started falling apart almost immediately. Kids kept them connected, as did the prevailing post-War conservatism and restricted suburban sprawl. But one member of the coupling was secretly dying inside. This person hated their new life, and found themselves seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Initially, it came from therapy, but eventually, it required a lover. All the time no one else knew – not the other spouse, not the increasingly cognizant children, not the neighbors, friends, or casual acquaintances. Divorce was discussed, but tradition tripped up any planned separation. It just wasn’t done in those days, and partners frequently feigned happiness for the benefit of their social standing. In the end, it took actual death, and the discovery of some incredibly explicit journals, to shed light on a lifetime of pain and problems.
Who the actual sufferer was remains one of 51 Birch Street’s clandestine delights. Block obviously knew that the audience would draw one conclusion (the situation practically screams the answer), but perspective is not always perceptive, and the second act disclosures regarding adultery and fantasy frustration really throw us, and the narrative. In situations such as these, viewers enjoy playing heroes and villains, and switching sides in midstream stands as quite a trick. It speaks to Block’s ability behind the camera, his attention to detail in both his story and his overall tone. Besides, we are susceptible to the age old standards, and such suspicions are hard to shake, even in this enlightened age. As a result, this documentary does something that’s quite rare, even for the genre. It casts open our own ideas about love and fidelity, and causes us to reflect on the state of our own relationships, and the truth about those around us.
Even deeper, 51 Birch Street, asks us to take the unusual stance of looking at parents as actual people. Because of their part as our initial introduction to the world, we filter almost all our earliest experiences through the lessons and leanings of our Mom and Dad. In addition, society loves to stigmatize certain human facets, taking subjects like sex, drugs, and the suicidal loss of self directly off the table. No right minded adult would pretend to burden their offspring so. But Minn and Mike were different. They were an evolving couple that, one day, decided to simply stick with the status quo. We snicker as Doug’s sisters discuss their ‘hippie’ guardians, partaking of marijuana and contemplating wife swapping, and wonder how they managed to maintain a reasonable relationship while inside a stressful and aggressive set of individual therapies. The answer is obvious – they didn’t. But no one else in the Block family understood that fact. They continued on as if nothing was happening, oblivious to the estranged situation around them.
If there are flaws in this premise, it’s that Block as a narrator, is way too naïve for his 50-plus years. His mother, even in the minimal home video footage we see of her, is a completely measured woman, making sure her son understands that she loves her husband, but only on her terms. Watching Mike respond to his wife’s less than stellar sentiment is like seeing defeat illustrated. Similarly, the distance between father and son is an obvious outgrowth of the boy’s bond with his mother. No dad wants to be the wedge that comes between a loving parent/child connection, and so our forlorn guardian gave up. Now, some five decades into said denial, Block wants to vent, hug, and make up. He wants his dad to share in this emotional epiphany, but at 83, it’s hard to teach this tired old dog any necessitated new age tricks. A sequence with a noted PhD also goes nowhere, since Block’s befuddled questions seem more rhetorical than quizzical.
Yet thanks to the intrinsic intrigue in the slowly shifting storyline, our bond with the Blocks, and the last act denouements which clarify little but clearly bring closure – at least, for some – 51 Birch Street soars. We are touched by this remarkable saga, seeing ourselves and the people we came from in every painful recollection, remembering our own past right along with the filmmaker and his family. It won’t spoil much to say that both Minn and Mike are finally seen for who they really are, and were, by the closing moments of this movie. Similarly, the remaining Block brood size up the situations and resolve to let bygones be just that - gone. As the familiar fish out of water other woman, Kitty seems to sum things up best when she states that, until her golden years, marriage was a pressured rite of passage. She married her abusive first husband because he was blond. Now, she’s with someone who accepts her as she is – flaws and all. Had the first Block marriage began in such a fashion, this film would have never been made. Luckily for us, it didn’t