51 Birch Street

Editor’s note: This film is currently playing at the Avalon Theater in Washington DC, running Friday, 11 May 2007 until Thursday, 17 May (with a possible extension).

There are overwhelming memories, memories of the house. It was a bare place with practically no shrubs or trees, but I don’t think there’s any one dominant memory that comes through.

— Mike Block

“I married my first husband for one reason only. He was tall and he was blond…. He had no other qualifications. This is what we knew about marriage in those days.” Now married for the second time, Kitty has found companionship and romance beyond her expectations. She’s also found herself on camera, questioned by Doug Block, son of her new husband. As he documents in 51 Birch Street, Doug is struggling to understand his parents’ marriage, how they lived together and why they stayed together for 54 years, despite the fact that his own mother was unhappy, apparently throughout.

Kitty’s comments come near the end of Block’s film — released theatrically by Truly Indie in 2006 and now screening as part of Cinemax’s “Reel Life” series. The marriage between Kitty and her former boss, Doug’s dad Mike, leads to their decision to move to Florida and sell the Blocks’ longtime home at 51 Birch Street in Port Washington, New York. A documentary filmmaker by trade (somewhat ironically, he frequently videotapes weddings), Doug believes initially that he is tracing his parents’ relationship in order to find out how his father has come to the new marriage so quickly. Doug opens the film with a question for Mina, whom he interviewed as part of another kind of project, before her death. She smiles patiently at his camera: “It’s going to spoil my drink, but okay.” And with that, he asks her to wait a moment, while he ensures his focus is “working.”

It’s an apt, even uncanny, opening for a film in which the focus changes radically. Mina recalls for her son his father’s fidgeting with focus and framing when he took snapshots of her, at 17. “It took him a half an hour before he could take a normal picture,” she recalls. But then, “Nothing ever is direct. It’s circuitous. Everything is circuitous, goes around in very unpredictable ways.” So Doug is about to learn. His parents, he says, seemed an “inseparable unit,” with the “requisite three kids” and perfect home in the burbs. “Until things took an unexpected turn,” he observes of his videotaping, “I never intended to tell their story. I was just trying to capture them for posterity.” The change comes when his father and Kitty are preparing for their move and find three boxes full of Mina’s diaries dating back to 1968.

The Block family, 1973 (L to R: Mike, Ellen, Doug, Karen and Mina Block)

At this point, Doug wonders aloud whether he should even read the diaries, let alone include them in his documentary. Though he imagined himself close to Mina when he was a child, now Doug realizes he knew essentially nothing about her. And so he begins to probe, beginning with Mike, whom he and his sisters — Ellen and Karen — assumed was the “distant” parent. “The thing is, my dad and I have never known what to say to each other,” he says after Mina’s funeral. “I bring the camera along to help give us something to talk about.” Filming as Mike goes through boxes and offers up familial artifacts (“Need a hacksaw? You’re not going to cut anything off?”), Doug feels confirmed in his sense of distance. “Being in dad’s basement,” he says, “always reminds me of how little I have in common with my father, the mechanical engineer.”

His sisters feel similarly, but his interviews with them also reveal that they read Doug’s relationship with Mike differently than he experienced it. While Ellen voices her siblings’ sense that “dad’s not a very sharing person about himself,” Karen admits she was jealous of the time Doug spent with him: “I don’t remember spending time with him individually, at all,” she says. But the son remembers his own time in another way. “I hated sailing, particularly when we were alone together,” he says, over photos showing a suitably bonded father and son on a sunny boat deck.

Likewise, Doug has long misunderstood his parents’ surface, demonstrated in snapshots showing broad smiles, Mina pert in ’50s-style wasp-waist dresses, Mike dashing, a World War II veteran, now proudly “bringing home the bacon.” Like other housewives of the era, Mina stayed home to raise the kids. Her diaries — and interviews with her longtime friend Natasha — reveal that she underwent therapy (“Mina was seeking all the time something,” says Mike), fell in love with her therapist, and eventually had an affair with a man the film leaves unnamed. Shocked to learn his mother’s secret life, Doug and his sisters begin to pose other questions. “Did you read her poems?,” asks Karen. “They were ‘mom.’ They were ‘me, me, me,’ totally introspective. You wouldn’t know she was married, you wouldn’t know she had a family.”

51 Birch Street director Doug Block with his father, Mike (1960)

“Reading mom’s diary,” says Doug, “confirms everything I feared. Her unhappiness and fear is palpable.” 51 Birch Street makes Doug and his sisters’ surprise visible, showing snatches of text (“I could scream,” “I live with compartmentalized feelings”) and video interviews with Mina (which means Doug heard about her discontent before she died). Too often, she says, the marriage was, she says, “Horrible for me, truly horrible.” Doug now offers revisionist history, both of his mother and his own understanding of her: “It’s strange to see her not as my mother but as a woman, an intellectual city kid stuck in the suburbs stuck in the house all day.”

In fact, Doug’s own reactions to Mina’s longings and disappointments (not to mention her marijuana smoking and make his film disquieting. While he includes brief images of his own wife, a university professor, his stepson and their daughter, for the most part, Doug struggles with himself, his insistence to Mike that he is “lucky” and working on the “happy” part, that his own surface may not be as transparent as he assumes. Though he turns to a rabbi for confirmation that he’s done the right thing by reading the diaries (“I’d read them because I’d want to know more about my family, a way of coming to terms with myself and who I am”), this device seems forced. More compelling by far are Doug’s interviews with Kitty and Natasha, women whose experiences were similar to his mother’s. “It was only after a while that we began to wonder,” recalls Natasha, “‘Isn’t there something more to life than keeping the house clean?’ And that’s when houses got dirty. I think the big issue was power.”

No kidding. Doug’s investigation of his own confusion and ignorance (appropriately childish when he was a child, but also allowed by his status as a man in this culture) becomes the film’s underlying story. Kitty’s description her relationship with her blond, incessantly belittling husband corresponds with Natasha’s idea that divorce wasn’t an option (“People didn’t know they had a choice,” she says, “women especially”). Mina says in an interview, “You get married in those days because it was expected of you blah, blah, blah. If you weren’t married, you were dead.” As the documentary proposes, Mina’s secrets were less scandalous than typical.

Turning to Marjorie, Doug learns that she feels “fulfilled… “as a teacher, as an activist in my own small way, and in my relationship with my children.” When he asks her how she feels about him, she smiles: “It depends on the day you’d ask me.” As revealed repeatedly, variously, and hauntingly in 51 Birch Street, marriage is like that, a different struggle every day.

RATING 8 / 10