God Bless This Mess
The AFS Texas Documentary Tour: Doug Block's '51 Birch Street'
51 Birch Street
Doug Block in attendance
Wednesday, Oct. 11, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown
Imagine: Your parents have been married for 54 years, raised three kids in a middle-class split-level on Long Island. One day, your vibrant, healthy mom, with whom you and your two sisters have been very close, comes down with pneumonia and, three weeks later, she's dead. Dad, the parent you've never been that close to or felt you really knew he's just not that communicative; you know the type takes a trip to Florida three months later and calls to announce that he's reconnected with and will be marrying Kitty, his secretary from 40 years ago (you knew her as Carol). There's a great scene at dad (Mike) and Kitty's wedding reception that pretty much sums it up. The newlyweds take to the floor to dance to "their" favorite song, which turns out to be "Only You."
Filmmaker Doug Block, as the still shell-shocked best man at his father's wedding, articulates the reaction of each of the groom's three adult offspring: "After 54 years of marriage to my mother, 'Only You' strikes me as a particularly odd choice for my father to make, but, as the best man, it's not a day for personal opinions."
Got your attention? Thought so. Apparently, this has been the reaction of festival audiences worldwide to Block's slide down this particularly slippery slope, namely taking (and filming) an unblinkered look as a grownup at one's parent's marriage. 51 Birch Street has struck a primal nerve, racking up audience-favorite awards as it makes its way through the circuit from its premiere in Toronto to places as far-flung as Poland, Ireland, and Ecuador. (The film also screened at SXSW 06.) For another telling indication of the film's appeal, Block, who also directed Home Page (1999), is currently in distribution talks with both Israeli television and al Jazeera. This month, the film will be shown theatrically across the U.S., as well.
Back to our story. With Mike and Kitty reunited and poised to sail off together into their sunset years their second act there remains the sale and emptying out of the family house at 51 Birch St., the site of the family's first act. Up to this point in the film, we've been introduced to Block's late mom, Mina, through taped interviews that Block, the aspiring filmmaker with a charged camcorder always at the ready, had shot over the years. In contrast to the yellowing, static photos of Mike, the dapper, handsome, young GI in uniform, back from the war, Mina (also a looker in her day) is warm, open, engaging, articulate, and accessible. We, the audience in high voyeur mode, watch the packing-up activities at 51 Birch St. through Block's lens, intently searching Mike's and Kitty's frustratingly opaque faces and demeanor for clues as to exactly what was going on between them during those 54 years that he was married to Mina.
Then, with the surprise discovery of a set of boxes containing years of Mina's diaries, the camera zooms in on her and who she was during those pre-Betty Friedan years: An underemployed suburban housewife raising three kids and unhappily married to Mike. Shocked by what he reads in these passionate, self-disclosing logs Mike declines to read them Block scans the interviews he shot 10 years earlier of his mom giving a family history and there she was, candidly discussing the trajectory of her ennui. "I had this vague recollection that she'd said something about being unhappy," Block says, "but when I went back and looked at that interview where she says it right out loud, I asked myself, why didn't I hear that? Of course, I didn't hear it for all the reasons children don't want to know what's going on with their parents."
Austin Chronicle: So what, exactly, propelled you into this risky territory?
Doug Block: God knows you don't want to make a film like this, because it's so personal; it's very dangerous territory. I didn't know I was going to deal with the diaries when I started, but, even still, I was dealing with my own personal grief and coming to terms with all these changes in the family and was like, "This is not a film it's life." I don't believe in putting your therapy up on camera. It was only when I realized that what I was experiencing must be experienced by a lot of people that I decided to make the film.
AC: What were some of your high anxieties setting out?
DB: That I was going to look like an idiot, make my family look like idiots. Personal films are really tough to pull off; everyone knows how godawful they can be. If you don't do it right, you can look like a narcissistic, self-indulgent moron. One of the biggest challenges was knowing that the material was so special and not knowing whether I could really make a film as special as the material itself was, make it as good as I thought it could be.
AC: What did you want people to take away from 51 Birch Street?
DB: Call mom; call dad. It's that simple. Don't wait until one of them is gone to realize you have stuff to talk to them about or things to say. You're an adult now. I think that there's always the question: Do we really want to know our parents? How do you get past how you relate to them which is really based on being a kid? Your relationship is based on being 8 years old, and then suddenly you're 30, 40, 50 and still relating to them like you're 8. There's no way to break through that.
AC: Do you feel like you broke through that with your dad?
DB: Totally with my father, absolutely. With mom, that was what the diaries were about for me, understanding this woman who was my mother and accepting her for who she was as an adult. From adoring her as a kid, it was a very different relationship I came to with her at the end not just me and my father going through some arc and coming to terms with each other and finally talking and getting to know who the other was. There was a definite progression with my mom, too, in the film. It was an acceptance on my part that she was not the mother I grew up with but that I could accept her as an adult with all of her flaws and all of her complexity, appreciate who she was and deal with what she wasn't like with any person in your life who means a lot to you. I understood her effect on my father. And that was my quest in the film getting to know my parents. Who are these people? What was going on in the house? What was their relationship why were they so secretive about how unhappy they were? Of course, one wonders, why didn't they get divorced if they were so unhappy? ... I personally feel it has a lot to do with forgiving them and accepting that they did the best they could and then moving on. A lot has to do with expressing that, too; a large part of making the film was just appreciation for them.
AC: So it wasn't a matter of finding out whether your dad really had an affair with Kitty? That fell out as an issue?
DB: Yeah, I made a big deal of that in the film, and it was in some ways a big deal, but, you know, the bottom line was I wouldn't have been bothered if my dad and Kitty really did have an affair I deliberately left it open to question I had my own personal beliefs, but I didn't want to make it seem conclusive that I was completely buying into what he said. I asked him the question, and he gave me an answer; that doesn't mean it was the truth, it just means he gave me an answer. Now, I tend to believe my father; others don't. But you know what? That's fine.
DB: Yeah. I don't think it's important.
AC: You mean now, or going into making the film?
DB: It was more important to me in the beginning, but as I went along and realized what my father was about and who he was, and then discovering all this stuff about my mother, it was like, well, dad, why didn't you have an affair? [laughs] I was a little disappointed when he said no. I wanted to say, really? Why not? I thought it was important for him to see the early cut of the film to see if he was OK with it, and I wanted to make sure he and Kitty felt it was truthful and fair, and they did.
AC: And they weren't in the least bit troubled by it?
DB: Well, sure they were somewhat troubled by it, but I think my dad was very generous; he trusted that I would do it justice, and he felt that I did. Sure, he has his uncomfortable moments. On the other hand, he's gone around from festival to festival with it, done Q&As, seen it probably eight times by now. He's very proud of it, and he likes to talk about what he's learned from the marriage and the film, and he likes the message that just because you're old, you don't have to give up. He was much more concerned about how the film treated my mother than himself he appreciated it because he felt I was fair to my mom. He said she was a very complicated woman and [that I] captured that and [was] fair. I think he appreciated the grace note that the film left on, how they were to each other my mom really did love him, or had moments where she expressed that, and my dad just wished she had been more happy. People still have the capacity to change and find happiness even at 83. He is really open now. We talk all the time on the phone now; we never get off without saying I love you, all that shit. I just sit there with my jaw open, wondering, who are you?
AC: How do you imagine your mom would have felt about having her diaries made public after her death?
DB: I think if she'd seen it, she would have been fine. Certainly I agonized over this question when we were editing it for 18 months. Then it was: "It doesn't work, it doesn't work, it doesn't work, I'm an idiot, I'm going to burn in hell. What kind of son does this to his parents? Why was I ever born? No sleep, no sleep, idiot, idiot, what were you thinking?" Then all of a sudden it works, and you think, whew, at least I won't burn in hell. Then you show it to an audience and they actually like it and you go, yes, well, what can I say?
Jessi Cape, Fri., March 15, 2013
Andy Campbell, Fri., March 15, 2013
Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 15, 2013
Leah Churner, Fri., March 15, 2013
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