Published on June 13th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
51 Birch Street 
Summary: A deeply personal picture about marriage, directed by the subjects' son. Doug Block reveals some painful truths but his methods are questionable.
Not Rated | 88 min.
Director: Doug Block | Editor: Amy Seplin
Distribution: Truly Indie | Box Office: $84,689 (#386 for 2006)
When producer Craig Gilbert invented reality television with 1973’s An American Family, this is what he thought the genre was capable of.
Months-long competition shows, staged arguments among rich siblings and exposés about teenage mothers are instead what reality TV has turned into, but documentaries like 2005’s 51 Birch Street capture the true spirit of reality on film.
This is about as personal as filmmaking is capable of being. Director Doug Block, whose filmography hasn’t grown much in the last decade, makes a film about family — more specifically, marriage — by turning the camera on his parents and revealing some painful truths in the process.
The charm of 51 Birch Street comes from the feeling it was made completely by accident. The production values aren’t pretty, thanks to a full-frame aspect ratio and home-video style first-person shooting on tape. This is far from a big budget production but the most effective documentaries rarely are.
Block’s parents Mike & Mina are “not exactly the type of people you’d want to make a documentary about, even if you were their son,” according to the director’s own narration. After a 54-year marriage, Mina, the family’s beloved matriarch, suddenly passes away, leaving everyone in mourning.
Everyone but Mike, that is.
Doug’s father drops a bombshell on his kids less than a month after Mina’s passing, tying the knot with his estranged secretary “Kitty,” whom he supposedly hadn’t been in touch with for 40 years. Block and his sisters are left reeling, confused about a father they describe as being emotionally distant their entire lives.
The theme of 51 Birch Street changes several times, expanding from a film about resentment and pain to one about true love and coming to grips with what’s really important in life. Hint: It’s not resentment.
Mina Block is the star of the film’s early scenes, taking a lion’s share of the face time and being described by Doug as someone he was always very close to. Meanwhile, Mike “is a whole different story,” according to the director. Doug Block and his sisters don’t hide their contempt for their new step mother, fiercely fighting to keep her memory in the foreground while the 83-year-old Mike is trying to move on with the years he’s got left.
I found the dynamic between children and parents interesting through this film’s lens. In a sense, their roles are reversed as the kids try to keep their father from moving on, not unlike clingy parents clinging to their children’s youth in an attempt to keep them from growing up and moving away. It’s obvious that Doug has been filming his family members documentary style for a long time because they open up to his camera in a very honest way, not pulling punches regarding their judgement of Mike’s decision to remarry so quickly.
Block asks some interesting questions in the film’s second act, most notably why do people stay together in a long marriage? Is it convenience? Certainly in the case of the Blocks that seems to have been the case — as Doug discovers some revealing daily journals that Mina kept during the early years of his childhood.
I found 51 Birch Street to be as much about a generation gap as it was about marriage. Although divorce rates began to soar in the 1970s, it was still a taboo for men to speak openly about their feelings. In the Block family, neither parent publicly expressed much of their inner thoughts, with Mina only truly opening up to her journal — and a psychiatrist she seemed to develop an affection for, according to her writings.
The inclusion of these journals, while vital to the narrative of 51 Birch Street, are also one of my biggest issues with the movie. If Doug, his sisters and father want to open themselves up to the audience, that’s totally their choice but reading a dead woman’s deepest secrets from her locked-away diaries for thousands of strangers just feels wrong to me. Doug seems to struggle with this ethical dilemma slightly, that is until he’s absolved by one of Mina’s closest friends who tells him on-camera, she would have wanted him to read them. Maybe so, but she might have reservation about legions of moviegoers essentially reading her diary too.
This film reminded me a lot of Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, which was even more personal. Polley, a famous actress, documents her own discovery of a deeply-buried secret that her family had kept from her for decades. Doug Block doesn’t turn the camera onto himself nearly as much as Polley, instead he keeps the focus on his parents’ marriage as a microcosm of other marriages. Stories We Tell also felt very self-indulgent at times, something Block’s picture doesn’t do.
As 51 Birch Street progresses, we see Mike as a man that would rather avoid the painful truths of his life and instead make the most of the time he has left. He tells his son he won’t talk about the ugly parts of the past, instead opting to talk about the good things from the old days, partially out of respect for Mina, we suspect.
“Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint,” is one cliché Doug drops during the movie but it could have been the film’s tagline. Perhaps the most revealing line of 51 Birch Street comes at the end in a one-on-one interview between father, son and camera when Doug asks Mike, “Do you miss Mom?” After a thoughtful pause, Mike replies, “No. I can’t say I miss her,” telling Doug they didn’t want to break apart but only because of function, not deep affection.
In the end, we discover Mina may have known Mike better than he knew himself. She predicts his marriage to “Kitty” and writes that he likely should have tied the knot with her to begin with. It’s a sad conclusion that reveals the half-century they spent together may not have been fair to either party. Block is successful in making us look at our own relationships but I can’t imagine he did his family any favors by exposing these secrets to anyone who cares to pick up his DVD.