On the ‘Street’ Where He Lived

The ZIP code for "51 Birch Street" may as well end in 007; such is the mystery and intrigue unraveled in this compelling film of romance and regret by Doug Block of a marriage more mixed than stirred.

It is a Block party done in "Street" theater style, with a roving camera delivering a riveting framed picture of a family riven by rifts and recriminations.

The fact that the "heroes and villains" of the film are called Mom and Dad by the documentarian makes it hit home all the more.

Just released on DVD after a critically acclaimed theatrical run, "51 Birch Street" (www. 51birchstreet.com) addresses the very notion of how "Mom and Dad" can actually be pod people — with distinct lives outside those they serve raising solipsistic sons and daughters with self-centered universes.

Here is one son who let the sun shine in … or was it allowed the clouds to cover the coveted comfort of "Home, Sweet Home"?

In going back to examine the real roots of his Long Island home, Block longs for the complete picture he never had growing up in a family that was a quiet riot of reserve and ineffable resentment.

He has accomplished the incredible: a sound movie of unheard of honesty, a talkie of silent rage and renegade needs in which the next voice you hear is that of a broken heart ready to heal.

That is the soundtrack of the father's soul, whose lament for his wife of 54 years after her death is more jeer than jeremiad, a wailing wall that breaks down and releases a wash of words that reflect his emboldened will to begin life anew.

And when he does just that, rewinding life to the past, revisiting and then romancing a former secretary of his, rebelling against what is expected of him and suddenly becoming– wonder of wonders — the merry widower planning an all-too-soon march down the aisle, it's all too easy to crush him as a crass creep of a wedding crasher.

But then, the mother's diary — a cache of confidential accusations and acrimony that catches the marriage in its crosshairs — appears, and one can see that a marriage of 50-plus years need not warrant a golden anniversary celebration when the tarnish has attached itself so indecorously to its mettle.

Mom had her tales to tell, too, even at the tail end of her life, stories in a journal that jerked reality out of its nostalgic haze and jimmied open crevices in corners uncovered during her lifetime.

Block's filmic blog of life with mother and father takes on its own life — and an intriguing, insightful and intelligent take it is, where the chupah is shown to be as threadbare after 50 years as the hearts united under it.

He has often walked by that street before, but Block's blockbuster of not-so-benign regret — when asking his father, "Do you miss Mom?" he is met with an unequivocal "No" — poignantly reveals how life and living intersected at "51 Birch Street," delivering a surprising "address unknown" for the man who lived there for so long.

These are scenes from a marriage Bergman never got to film.

"Well," muses Block with a laugh, "maybe he would have if he had had a digital camcorder."

It is an eye-opener: "I thought of Bergman a lot while making this film. I've always admired his 'Wild Strawberries.' "

Strawberry fields, forever? Not in this case. "When I went to my high school reunion, I went by the old house," which his father had sold before moving on to a new life with his wife in Florida — "and it had been reconfigured and redone.

"In some way, it brought it all home, that that house I knew and grew up in was gone."

Gone, but far from forgotten — and forgiven? The morose and the merry mix in this movie with a sense of humor providing its own hue among the blues.

"Humor? Why be surprised? We're Jewish!" laughs Block. "It came out in the way we relate to each other; we didn't take ourselves too seriously."

Not that there weren't strict standards to abide by.

"My father was so strict," recalls Block of his boyhood days, "and it was a game to push the limits."

Pushing the envelope envelops "51 Birch Street" as a home video from the heart. But, obviously, this is not a Bar Mitzvah bargain-basement endeavor; Block's bio bulges with major movie accomplishments.

And "Street" seems to have hit home outside the nice neighborhood of Long Island. It's not just a Jewish family depicted, Block acknowledges — it's black, Italian, Croatian.

"It's Palestinian," he says in reference to "51 Birch Street" taking root in the sand of the Mideast, "where it's been sold to both Al Jazeera and Israeli TV."

It has been a globe-gilded experience for the filmmaker, but did he ever suffer Jewish guilt from exposing his mother's diaries to the light of the screen, flashing it before untold audiences in darkened theaters and now enlightened living rooms?

"I felt a special obligation to the truth and as a son, which had nothing to do with my sense of Jewishness."

A mother's kisses? "I wouldn't have made it unless I felt my mother would have okayed it."

I'm okay, you're okay … and audiences are kayoed by the film's frankness and honesty, especially intimations of intimacy between Block's mother and her therapist. "I knew it could be a Pandora's box that I was opening," reveals Block.

It all revealed the creeping — and creepy — suspicion that had Block asking himself, "Do we really want to know everything about our parents?"

It's not the only question it brought up: "Can Jewish boys burn in hell for this?" he pondered of his posthumous unveiling of his mother's innermost thoughts.

There may be a postmodern future for the writings. Thinking outside the box — all three of them filled with the magic and myths of a mother's memories — the cartons may go from "51 Birch Street" to 10 Garden St., the Cambridge, Mass., address of the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe Institute, the women's historical haven that has requested them for inclusion in its collection.

As fodder for the film the diaries may make for an incredible movie, but they didn't move Block's father. "He had no interest in reading them," notes his son.

Between the Lines
A reading on his own marriage of many years shows the 50-something filmmaker knows where the focus should be. Not that it's all been without some wedded blitz.

"That was a tough period in our marriage," he says of the time he spent "so wrapped up on making the film."

But that wrapping had a beautiful bow tied to the presence of mind he and his wife had in knowing that theirs was a special binding, a marriage meant to last.

Even if his parents' were tied with wisps of wishes rather than steel resolve. So, if the elder Block courtship could have fast-forwarded to today, when a more open society unclosets closed-off emotions, would there have been a healing of an unburdening on the block of 51 Birch Street?

Block avers: "I don't think they would have gotten married."

Unquestionably, one of Block's blockbuster accomplishments is in dealing with a question called into the film's focus in a scene from his parents' anniversary party.

Caught on film, it provides a catch in the throat.

"It was such a complicated question to answer," he says of his mother innocently posing a question loaded with life and love and lamentations, targeted at a son whose lens on it all was so befogged with bafflement.

As his Mom and Dad delighted in the limelight, a dance of memories masking myths and misgivings, she asked Doug a question about her and her husband, a question born to bother:

"Are you happy," she wanted to know, "we got married?"



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