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The Reeler Blog

Another Trip to Birch Street

51 Birch Street director Doug Block and his father Mike in 2005 (Photo: Truly Indie)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I hope you've been enjoying this blog's Pinch Hitters while I am away, stealing wi-fi where I can just long enough to edit all the libel and curse words out of posts by Jeff Blitz, Pamela Cohn, John Lichman and the like. Regrettably, I have no super subs set for today, so in the spirit of careful resource management, I'd like to step in for myself for a moment, flashing back to that crisp autumn day in 2006 when this site was new-ish and director Doug Block kicked New York's ass with his staggering documentary 51 Birch Street. The film, chronicling Block's fearless, maybe even foolhardy probe into his parents' troubled 54-year marriage, arrives today on DVD.

And as I alluded to at the time in my chat with the director, it was a spot-on must-see:

As portrayed in the film, Block's process comprised a formidable pair of investigations. Along with candid illuminations from his sisters, the filmmaker's interviews achieve an especially harrowing intimacy with a father with whom he admits never having been very close. Their warming to each other after Mina's death is barely noticeable amid the choreography of averted eyes and long slumps into silence; Block attributes his father's stoicism in large part to his World War II service, but he can't help noticing the 83-year-old's relative ebullience following a reunion and courtship with Kitty, his former secretary. As a son, the dichotomy virtually paralyzes him; as a filmmaker, his curiosity propels him headlong into myth, motivations and secrets.

"We really said a lot of things that we wanted to say," Block said. "It helped me to have the camera. I could ask questions that I never really would have had the guts to ask without it. I feel somehow that my father was more comfortable in an interview situation, too. He's very honest, and he's always been good if I ask him a direct question. I've just never been that comfortable asking direct questions, and he doesn’t ask me direct questions. But if I've put one to him, he would answer. Once you get into that mindframe, it's not so difficult."

He probes similar dynamics on his mother's side, electing after extended deliberation to read three boxes of journals accumulated over more than half of her marriage. Block illustrates their most potent revelations -- psychosis, loneliness and the unsettling comforts of sexual obsession -- in tightly edited, graphical asides that get at the soaring immediacy and insurmountable cost of her confessions. As she discovers, being in touch with herself -- a stifled 1960s suburban housewife and mother -- means sacrificing most of what supplies individual joy. But in Block's contemporary footage, her smiles are only semi-numb; they punch through the pixel grain with the knowing upturn of one who has had it both ways.

Block made his own sacrifices as well, acknowledging his ambivalence about wanting to know his parents better. "If you do, it means you're no longer a kid," he said. "You can't be a kid around them if you show them you're an adult."

Check out the 51 Birch Street site for more backstory and additional information about today's DVD release.

Posted at August 14, 2007 10:51 AM

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