I suspect that every amateur filmmaker has footage of their family (I know I do). Most of us think we could make an interesting movie out of the footage, but I think most of us are wrong.
Still, I can think of three documentaries about a filmmaker’s family that were good enough for the festival circuit and/or independent distribution.
- Troublesome Creek played on PBS maybe twenty years ago. It’s about Iowa family farmers losing their careers and their homes while large-scale farmers take over.
- Hybrid is a portrait of the filmmaker’s grandfather, a man partly responsible for genetic advances in corn.
- Capturing the Friedmans is about a family coping with unseemly revelations about dad’s child-pornography addiction and unlikely accusations of child rape.
Each has a hook that makes the appeal wider than the family circle. In Troublesome Creek, the family stands in for a national trend. In Hybrid, the grandfather is a minor celebrity. And in Friedmans, the tabloid subject matter brings a national audience.
51 Birch Street has none of these hooks, and yet it still manages to be a very good documentary, earning blurb-worthy praise like “one of the year’s ten best... a work of art.” It’s also at ninety-some percent on Rotten Tomatoes. As a wannabe filmmaker with a lot of footage of my ordinary family, I paid close attention to see how Doug Block did it.
The answer is that Doug Block is an excellent storyteller.
Scenes from a Marriage
Block tells the story of his parents’ relationship. After his mother dies, his father quickly (too quickly for Doug) marries his secretary from 35 years ago. Suspicions are raised. Who was this woman? Why does she appear in family photographs? What was their relationship all those years ago?
As children, we don’t see our parents as romantic figures, as lovers. We see ourselves that way, and we can project that onto just about everyone else in the world, but somehow we deny that aspect of our parents.
Block takes his own discomfort as the starting point for an investigation into the lives of his parents as a romantic couple. He traces them through acquaintance, courtship, marriage, and children. It all seems very normal through the eyes of the son. But digging through mom’s diaries, Block discovers that his parents didn’t really fulfill each others’ needs. For a time, they were probably downright unhappy.
That changed, to a degree. The sexual and social liberation of the late 1960s affected both of his parents personally. His mother let herself be more carefree and youthful. She remembers hearing the 1812 overture on marijuana and being moved unlike ever before. Block’s father joined a men’s group, during which time he came to terms with his emotions, particularly anger, in a way that men of earlier generations just didn’t do.
But Mike and Mina just weren’t meant for each other. The ‘60s may have opened their eyes, but it didn’t make them fall in love with each other.
51 Birch Street is shot on video, intercut with still pictures from the past, and narrated by Doug Block who tries to stay behind the camera. The production isn’t particularly stellar.
What makes it good is the way Block tells the story. He starts with his relationship to his mother. Then he tells us she died. Then he tells us about his father remarrying. The story unfolds on the screen as though it were happening now. Most people would tell the story from the present day, speaking of Mina’s death and Mike’s second marriage in the past tense, and then inviting the talking heads to comment on what has gone before.
But in 51 Birch Street, each development comes as a revelation. Later we learn about the existence of mom’s diaries, and still later we get to see some of the skeletons in her closet. But there’s no present-day omniscience, which makes the story unspool with infinite possibilities.
How’s Your Mom?
In addition, the movie leads us through a nice range of emotions and perspectives. We, like Block, probably assume that dad was having an affair at the job he loved while poor old mom didn’t get to have a life. By the end we know a lot more about mom and a little more about dad, and our sympathies have shifted quite a bit. One of the strongest moments hammers home this change in perspective. Doug asks his father if he misses his mother. The answer is surprising, heartfelt, and incredibly moving.
Without being so direct, the movie invites you, the viewer, to think about your parents. Block shows an example of a relationship that was both good and bad. How do your parents stack up?
And how do you stack up? What is the foundation of your own relationship? If you die first, how will your partner remember you? What would a documentarian find if he studied your marriage?
Grain of Salt
51 Birch Street has earned a lot of praise, which, believe it or not, is a mixed blessing. It made me want to see the movie, but it probably oversold it as well. “One of the ten best of the year”? I’d have to think about all the other movies of 2006 before I could say. I liked 51 Birch Street, but it didn’t strike me as an outstanding achievement. 51 Birch Street is not brilliantly original or a work of art. Instead, it’s a documentary made from the mundane materials of hard work and patience.