Doug Block, Heather and Sam Dodge, Rachel and Paul Shapiro, Jennifer Hyjack and Augie Alexander, Danielle and Adam Hark, Anna Conlan and Erica Beckman, Rabbi Jonathan Blake
(HBO Documentary Films)
HBO: 30 Jun 2014
“Tell me what you’re looking for in the video.” Doug Block is on the phone with a potential client, someone who’s looking to have their wedding recorded. And as he speaks, you start to wonder, not only what someone might want to have done, but also, what anyone might expect of such a document? What does a wedding video show, what can it reveal or preserve, and what does it not show?
Block sets up these and other questions at the start of his new documentary 112 Weddings, which screened at AFI Docs and premieres on HBO 30 June. The answers are as complicated and compelling as you might imagine, as the film explores the marriages that come after weddings, their mix of hopes and limits, perhaps more provocatively, the hopes and limits of documentary.
“Weddings can certainly get you to wonder,” Block narrates as you watch footage of belly dancers, a bit of one of the 112 weddings he has taped over some 20 years. “Lately I’ve been wondering about the whole concept of marriage.” He took up recording weddings, he explains, to support his other work, making his documentaries, including The Kids Grow Up and 51 Birch Street, both wonderful contemplations of his own family dynamics. In the new film, he goes back to several couples whose weddings he taped in order to ask how things turned out, how their dynamics evolved, how their marriages were like or unlike what they expected.
As it turns out, no one here has a marriage they expected. “I had no expectations, I don’t think,” says Augie, married to Jennifer for eight years. He admits that he worried “the backrubs would stop, that everything was going to be different,” but that wasn’t the case, at least until they had their daughter. “That’s when the shit hit the fan.” Jen laughs when he says this. Block’s camera shows the two seated together in their apartment, framed photos on the wall, CDs on shelves, a string of lights decorating the window behind them.
As Augie speaks, he glances at Jen; she smiles, sometimes laughs. Photos show them with their baby, his face exhausted (one photo shows him with a sleep blindfold). She’s taken a new job as a children’s art teacher, they say, one that pays less than her work “in television”, a transition that’s been, she says, “an interesting journey.” When Augie suggests that there were points when he thought they needed a break (“to leave for a week and then come back”), he pauses to look at her: “Your eyes are just saying, like, uh, this is a painful conversation.”
The moment is like others in 112 Weddings, painful but also not. The subjects all appear at ease, open to Block’s questions and willing to broach difficult topics on camera, at least to a point. It’s this “point” that makes the film fascinating, as the filmmaker is plainly respectful of the limits his subjects might have, whether in their self-expressions of self-performances, the memories they feel able to share, the relationship details they can show.
For each story, the film offers wedding video footage, the happy starts for each marriage, the lovingly supportive or awkward relatives, the beautiful gowns, the lovely beach settings or multi-tiered cakes. Also for each story, the film finds visual rhymes for these past moments in present day images, couples on couches, seated apart or close together, framed by cluttered shelves and kitchen counters and pictures of their kids. Alluding both to continuities and changes in the relationships, these contexts tell stories in ways that the interviews cannot.
And so you see how documentaries do their work, sometimes intentional, sometimes surprising, always engaging. And so, as Rachel and Paul describe their marriage, their delight with their wonderful children and their understanding that compromises must be made. They sit on a sofa together, a close-up drawing attention to their hands entwined. “We work like anybody does to try to see the other person’s point of view,” says Paul, as a medium shot shows they both look toward the camera, not at one another; Rachel’s face scrunches up briefly, her memory of that work at once funny and telling.
Other visual details serve similar purposes, illustrating and layering the couple’s narratives. And so, when Danielle and Adam recall their wedding, the happy moment when they looked forward to a future full of more happiness, she reveals, remarkably candidly, her struggle with depression. Her “negative thoughts,” Danielle says, continue to worry her, as a mother of a young child as well as a wife. Adam, for his part, confesses that sometimes he feels as though he’s a single parent of two children, as Block’s camera shows Danielle seated in the background of a shot, where Adam engages with their daughter in the foreground.
“I don’t know if the choice was the best choice for Adam,” she frets. Still, Adam insists during their interview, his arm over Danielle’s shoulder “I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.” She smiles, and in that moment, as he laughs with her, you can see in them, again, the youngsters who posed for photos together as young graduates, a bride and groom.
As hopeful as these images may be, it may still be worth asking, as Block does, “Why is it such a big deal to get married?” Anna Conlan, a wedding photographer who means to marry her partner Erica Beckman, has an answer that expands the parameters of what marriage can mean. “It’s a really important social institution, one of the ways our society defines citizenship, isn’t it?”
For all of the many social and economic ramifications and goals of the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage, the political framework is undeniable. As 112 Weddings shows the two of them at work, snapping photos of a smiling heterosexual couple, the cut from one couple to the other makes the case clear enough.