Last time Judge Katie Herrell searched the bowels of her abode, she was looking for pliers.
"Everything is circuitous."
51 Birch Street is your family, in documentary form. It's your family, only nerdier. It's your family, only darker. It's your family, only more thoughtful. It's your family, but, whew, it's not…really.
Facts of the Case
Following the director's (Doug Block) mother's (Mina) sudden death what was to be a run-of-the-mill home video about marriage, commitment, longevity, and life is turned into a startling inside look at the secrets people keep. Doug's father's quickie remarriage to "Kitty," a former colleague from long ago, sheds light on a fractured first marriage and his first wife's—and his—many demons.
Initially 51 Birch Street begins like many self-indulgent home videos. Narrating and filming, the writer/producer/director Doug Block nasally intones about his childhood, his close-knit relationship with his mother and his strained ties with his father. When he mentions—and provides samples—that he shoots wedding videos to help pay the bills, it is time to wonder how bad this "documentary" is going to be.
But the beginning is really just a teaser. It's probably the way all Block home videos begin. After the intro that devotes much camera time to his sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued mother, Block's voice drops. The striking visage of his mother fades to black and you realize suddenly—just as the family likely realized—that the death of one of the main characters has happened abruptly and without warning. With this death a new film begins.
Block's father's eyes give away nothing. They are sort of beady and sort of glassy, sort of glazed and sort of alert. There's a slight smirk constantly on his face, but it looks a cross between trying not to cry and trying not to laugh. In a word he's unreadable.
But not long after his wife's death, while the family, or at least the film, is still moping about, patriarch Mike Block flies to Florida and returns betrothed to an old secretary of his from 35 years ago. And then his eyes shine. He dances; he kisses. This man who throughout the film has been described as unemotional by his children (Doug and his two sisters) is a cauldron of love. This alone causes his children's eyebrows to raise—"Where was that love for us all those years?" But an even bigger question arises—"Was he having an affair with Kitty before?"
Mina's brother, Josh Vogel, who is very dapper and odd, recalls frequent and questionable trips to Florida that Mike made in the past. Then he breaks out in his original tune, "I Flunk Adultery"—which is hilariously made into a music video on the Special Features portion of the DVD (and some of the best music in the entire film. This is a dialogue-driven film; the soundtrack is simply elevator music). So he might not be the most credible or unbiased witness. And Doug realizes that. Soon a quest for the truth begins.
As Mike and Kitty decide to move to Florida, the bowels of 51 Birch Street are thoroughly investigated. This longtime family home holds all of Mike's manly tools in the basement, his escape from the rigors of adulthood. It is in the basement that one of the great one-liners of the film—and there are many—happens. Mike asks his son if he needs a hacksaw. This simple question is an illustration of the great divide that has so long separated the creative, camera-wielding son and the stoic, hacksaw-using father.
Candid moments, such as the basement offering, are what truly make this film endearing. It is completely obvious in the footage (and the very insightful special feature, "Who Knew?: The Block Family Reacts to 51 Birch St.," confirms their surprise) that no one, except maybe Doug, expected this film to become anything other than a dusty home movie. And so, they pour their hearts out.
It is a credit to Doug's objectivity and sense of filmmaking that when preparing the film for the public he doesn't cut the most truthful moments out, even if they are hurtful to himself or his family. At one point Doug's wife admits that her loving husband is not always the apple of her eye. She lists work and her children as her greatest joys and with a look of such extreme fatigue, and an underlying hint of disgust, mentions that her feelings for Doug change from day to day.
Furthermore, Doug's own insecurities are fully on display in the film. Unearthed in the house are years of his mother's daily journals. Doug toys with reading them, consults a rabbi and a therapist, and eventually dives in, invisibly wringing his hands as he does so.
As Doug reads and uncovers not only his mother's severe depression and her love for her therapist, but other sordid details about her family life, the most damning words appear on the screen. The journal text covers the screen in a typewriter-esque font, with the words of interest blacker than the rest. It gives the film a Capote-style, murder mystery feel, but it is also a way to give these abstract words concreteness. His mother may no longer be living, but her words and her life are having a serious impact on her son, and eventually the rest of her family and the movie's audience.
After reading his mother's journals and realizing her indiscretions, Doug seems less hesitant to ask his father burning questions. Maybe because he wants to know the truth from his father before he dies? Or maybe Doug realizes his mother wasn't necessarily the good guy and his father the bad. Doug's father seems resigned to answering his son's pointed questions. With a new love in his life, Doug's relationship with his son also strengthens and, at least with a camera lens between them, the two seem to be able to relate.
This newfound father-son intimacy seems to be a fulfillment of Doug's quest in the first place. All of the skeletons in the closet he uncovers—and the truly remarkable, yet, in a way, ordinary tale they create—-seems to just be an added bonus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Early in the film, there is a short about-face moment where an unknown cameraman (Doug's extended arm, perhaps?) takes over for Doug and films his thoughts. As 51 Birch Street is just as much about Doug as the rest of the family, returning to this technique could have rounded out the film a bit more and transformed Doug from a floating, omnipresent narrator to a physically present person in the film, even if he'd simply propped up the camera and done confessional-style scenes.
Unlike so many documentaries that simply seem to present a problem—in horrid, emotional detail, many times—this film actually has a resolution. There's conflict and resolution, and that's what makes this film so fulfilling to watch—and I'm sure to make. Also this documentary has the proper balance between old (home videos, old photos, diary entries) and new footage. For a wedding videographer, this is a great documentary.
Guilty. Everything is circuitous, but sometimes with a little soul-searching and investigating, closing the door on troublesome avenues is possible.
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