'51 Birch Street' Makes Navel Gazing Look Good
One of the best examples of a recent trend of navel-gazing documentaries, 51 Birch Street is about Doug Block, his parents' 54-year marriage, and the things children think they know about their parents. As the documentary opens, we have the typical postwar story straight from Doug, in voiceover. Doug's father, the handsome, curt Mike, returns from WWII to settle in Port Washington, outside of New York City, with his wife, the vivacious Mina. Slides and Super-8 films by Mike illustrate their suburban idyll in black and white, then sun-baked color. Temperamentally, they may not have been the best match. But then the Greatest Generation never had a clue how to relate to their wives—or their skinny, sensitive sons.
Then, three scant months after Mina dies, Mike announces he's marrying an old secretary, who had been living in Florida. The kids are shocked. How did Kitty even find out Mina had died? When they see Mike and Kitty together—wildly in love, or at least convincingly miming passion for the camera—they're also flummoxed. At the age of 83, this Mike is nothing like the father they thought they knew. The wedding video (and Doug's cringe-worthy toast) screams their sense of betrayal.
But once you think the mystery has been solved (and a rather shallow mystery it was at that), the film abruptly pulls your sympathies in another direction. As Doug explores his mother's apparently unhappy life, he discovers crates full of her daily diaries, begun when she was undergoing psychoanalysis. Can you say "transference"? What transpired at 51 Birch Street isn't going to shock anyone, but the way your emotions follow obediently at each turn in the "plot" is the kind of lesson about perspective and ambiguity that only art can provide.