51 Birch Street

2006, Movie, NR, 88 mins

Review

51 BIRCH STREET
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Filmmaker Doug Block's documentary asks an interesting question: If, after the death of a parent, you should come across the dearly departed's diaries, would you read them? Block's film begs a second, even more interesting question, but it's one he never consciously considers: Would you then make a film about it, and if so, why? Like such recent family confessionals as CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS and TARNATION, Block's autobiographical film never steps back to examine the impulse to make the private so public, but offers an interesting case study of an unhappy, 50-year marriage. Block and his sisters, Ellen Block and Karen Engwall, hail from a sturdily middle-class Jewish family based in the comfortable Long Island suburb of Port Washington. Their parents, Mina and Mike, met in college and married not long after Mike returned from WWII. They were to all appearances a stable, relatively happy family, although Doug admits he was closer to his mother than his noncommunicative father. As a married adult with a wife and daughter of his own, Doug began filming his parents simply for posterity's sake when, suddenly, Mina contracted pneumonia and died. Within months of the funeral, Doug and his sisters receive a phone call from Florida: Their father is calling to tell them he's met up with his former secretary, Carol, aka "Kitty." Soon after, Mike and Kitty announce their plans to marry. The suddenness of the announcement leads Doug to suspect there was more to Mike and Kitty's relationship than he ever suspected — why else was this woman at his bar mitzvah? As Doug is helping to clear out the family home prior to Mike and Kitty's move to Florida, he uncovers Mina's journals — 35 years' worth — and learns the Block family's secret history. After wrestling with his conscience, Doug decides to dive right in, only to discover that it was his mother, not Mike, who was the real stranger in the family. Block's subtly complex study comes to a simple but important point: In the final analysis, parents are people, too, and the sooner their children accept this the sooner they'll be able to understand themselves. What's best about Block's documentary is how well he captures his own shifting perceptions, not just of his late mother, who emerges as a strong, self-obsessed and profoundly frustrated '50s housewife who found herself trapped in a suburban home with few outside options, but also of his still vibrant father who, after more than 50 years of marriage, is ready to give life — and happiness — another shot. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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