[Reposted in slightly expanded form from here.]
The personal essay has become the inescapable stuff of literate journalism (and personal anecdotes have crept into everything else, including film reviews), but the personal documentary remains a strange and delicate thing, a form still being traced out gingerly by the few who attempt it. Putting one’s own life in front of the camera is never as straightforward a thing as setting it into print.
Documentarian Doug Block didn’t set out to make a film about his parents, he set out to film them as a commemoration and stumbled onto a narrative after the death of his mother, when his father, just a few months later, moved down to Florida to live with his secretary from 40 years before. Block had always assumed his parents 50 plus years of marriage had been happy, and his father’s immediate rebound into a possibly preexisting relationship is devastating to him and his siblings. And so begins an exploration of his parents’ life together by way of the footage, friends, family members and diaries his mother left behind, shaped around the childhood home his father has already sold.
Block wants the central question of his film to be one of whether we ever really know our parents, but what emerges is more a reminder of the persistence and peculiarity of memory â€” like "Capturing the Friedmans," another, far darker excavation of the life of a Long Island family, "51 Birch Street" is a mosaic of materials and interviews. Block’s family members each have distinct and differing recollections of the years they spent together, and though his mother is no longer there to speak for herself, she presents the clearest voice of all in her writing. It is his father who was ever the more enigmatic, a taciturn figure of 50s masculinity that Block has become accustomed to shielding himself from with a camera in their time together. As the film progresses through a series of increasingly heart-rending and crushingly candid interviews with the older Mr. Block, it draws out a compassionate portrait of the man that seems unexpected even to the filmmaker, who in the end finds the camera turned, touchingly, on himself.
Opens in New York October 18th.
+ "51 Birch Street" (Truly Indie)