Review: ‘51 Birch Street’

A tonal triumph of true-life storytelling told with equal measures of tension and redemption, "51 Birch Street" finds humanist docu helmer Doug Block investigating the nagging mystery of his parents' relationship and his father's remarriage following the death of his mother.

A tonal triumph of true-life storytelling told with equal measures of tension and redemption, “51 Birch Street” finds humanist docu helmer Doug Block investigating the nagging mystery of his parents’ relationship and his father’s remarriage following the death of his mother. Extended theatrical window prior to HBO preem gives an enterprising distrib full opportunity to build pic’s inevitably positive word-of-mouth via arthouse play, with post-cable vidstore berths a likely address.

“When it comes to your parents,” Block observes in his wry yet warm narration woven throughout, “maybe ignorance is bliss.” Married for 54 years, mechanical engineer Mike and homemaker Mina Block seemed the picture of stability; “Only You” was their song.

Sure, Mike was emotionally distant from his children and Mina wasn’t always the warmest of mothers, but Doug and his two sisters seemed to enjoy their childhoods at the eponymous address in Port Washington, N.Y., to which the family moved two years prior to helmer’s 1953 birth.

In 2002, at the age of 78, Mina died of pneumonia three weeks after becoming ill. A few months later, Doug’s father announced plans to sell the house and marry Carol “Kitty” Block, a widow who’d been his secretary in the 1960s.

“Why do I suddenly care that Kitty was a guest at my Bar Mitzvah in 1966?” helmer wonders, even as his Uncle Josh — who performs a self-penned ditty called “I Flunk Adultery” for Block’s bemused camera — remembers Mike’s routine business trips to Florida around the same time.

While cleaning out 51 Birch St., Block discovers three boxes of his mother’s diaries, both typewritten and longhand in spiral notebooks, spanning some 35 years. The secrets, feelings and desires buried within these volumes, coupled with unexpectedly revealing interviews with his father, who tells his shocked son the marriage “wasn’t a loving association, just a functioning one,” leads filmmaker to a very different conclusion than the one he’d dreaded discovering.

Block’s memoir shares similar thematic ground with recent docu success “Capturing the Friedmans,” but pic is polar opposite in execution and results. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage for a filmmaker to share this material with the world. Yet in revealing these secrets, Block has tapped into the universal feelings of many aging boomers who feel their seemingly secure childhoods masked deeper mysteries within their parents’ relationships.

Though helmer creates a perfectly legitimate sense of dread at the telltale clues he assembles and the conclusions that might be drawn from them, the very different reality he eventually discovers serves to underscore his thesis — can one every really know one’s parents? — with an inspiring sense of relief and optimism. Mike and Mina Block weren’t perfect, but their determination to stay together, even as each chafed under the pressures of their union, is a story worth telling at this moment in time, and a story with every bit the emotional punch of more sensationalist docu fare.

Tech package is tops, with Block, whose previous films as director include “The Heck With Hollywood!” and “Home Page,” seamlessly mixing interview footage shot over 20 years with 8mm home movies and family photographs. Shots of the same staircase in the family home, taken at pivotal moments during the unfolding drama, typify helmer’s ability to coax resonant visual metaphors from existing family footage.

Highlighted passages from Mina’s diaries serve as a smooth transitional device. Accompanied by Kitty, 83-year-old Mike Block attended pic’s Toronto fest at his son’s side.

51 Birch Street


A Copacetic Pictures production, in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films, ZDF, Arte. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Doug Block, Lori Cheatle. Directed by Doug Block. Written by Block, Amy Seplin.


Camera (color, Digital Betacam), Block; editor, Seplin; music, H. Scott Salinas, Machine Head; sound, Otto Gain. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 13, 2005. Running time: 88 MIN.


Mike Block, Mina Block, Carol "Kitty" Block, Ellen Block, Karen Block Engwall, Marjorie Silver, Natasha Saltzman, Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Samuel Osherson.
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