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Doug Block's documentary, 51 Birch Street, is an intensely intimate first-person exploration of his own family in the aftermath of his mother's death. The film, recently released on DVD, had a limited run in theaters last fall, but it definitely deserves a wider audience.
Block, who shot and narrated the film, frames the family members he interviews, including his sisters and father, in extreme close-up as he talks about their collective family history. After suddenly losing his elderly mother to pneumonia, Block's reticent 83-year-old father marries his former secretary, Kitty, and according to Block's sisters, seems to finally find happiness. His children are shocked and slightly dismayed by the sudden wedding, but do their best to accept the matter. As Block puts it, "my mom and I have this deep connection that goes way back." Not so for his relationship with his father, a man he portrays as having had very little communication with the family over the years.
As his father and Kitty prepare to sell the family home in Port Washington, New York, the family comes across boxes and boxes of diaries that his mother kept, dating back to the 1960s. Block makes the painful decision to read them, and while it is cathartic, it's also a decision he may regret. "When it comes to your parents," he says, "maybe ignorance is bliss." What he discovers are pages and pages of intimate details of his mother's unhappiness, an attempt at an affair with her therapist, and the saga of a woman who yearned for more stuck in a suburban marriage.
51 Birch Street intersperses footage of Block's mother that he shot before her death with the process of his father and Kitty preparing to abandon the family home and move to Florida. As Block follows his dad around with the camera, it is clear that the distraction helps to ease the awkward tension between the two, a buffer that gives an almost estranged father and son something to actually talk about. The tension may be awkward, but the film is not, even though it is sometimes painfully personal. It's also one that any viewer can relate to. At one point, Block's wife talks about how most of us go to the grave with unresolved issues with our parents, something many of us can relate to. Doug Block's documentary looks at the issue in a tender, reflective, and sometimes even funny way. In the vein of other personal documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans or Tarnation, 51 Birch Street uses the personal to signify the universal, and the results are poignant and engaging. SEE ALSO: www.51birchstreet.com
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Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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