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STUDIO: Image Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 88 Minutes
RATED: Not Rated
• “What Did You Think of the Movie?”
• “I Flunked Adultery”
A surprisingly compelling documentary about a marriage between two ordinary people.
The Block Family
An old couple sits on a couch, talking to each other as their son video tapes them. The couple is Mike and Mina Block. They’ve been married for 54 years. Their son, Doug, asks them if they’ve had a happy marriage. They both nod slowly, and Mina says “Yeah. I guess I love him. I guess he’s okay.” The thing is that she means it…but not in the way that you think.
Filmmaker Doug Block introduces himself as a man who avidly records his family life for posterity. He’s got hours of footage from family gatherings, and afternoons just hanging out with his parents, specifically his mother. The first ten minutes or so of the film establish the relationship he and his mother shared. He is always asking her questions, and kidding around with her. He sets up perfectly that they were obviously very close, and shared a special relationship.
So ten minutes in, when we’re told that Mina Block died of pneumonia, you can tell that it hit Doug very hard. He continues filming, though, and begins following his father around. Their relationship has never been a close one. They barely talk. Doug answers his father’s questions in curt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, it’s a very uncomfortable situation. I thought that maybe the film was going to end up being about the building relationship between father and son. I’ve always been a sucker for those kinds of films so I was on board.
Which is when Doug Block tells us that three months after his mother died; his father (at the ripe age of 85) got married to his secretary, who he’s known for 35 years. Color me surprised.
Block casts his father’s new wife, Carol (who Mike calls "Kitty"), in a cold light. Mike and Carol decide that they’re moving to Florida, and in preparation for the big move, Carol seems eager in throwing out anything that belonged to Mina. Of course Doug doesn’t like that, and neither do we. He throws in footage of her tossing old memorabilia inside boxes carelessly.
During the move, Mina’s old journals are found. And it’s not just a few notebooks. Huge, 300 page, spiral bound notebooks, enough of them to fill a large filing drawer, are just waiting to be read. Being the family historian, Doug is now tempted with the freedom to read everything she ever wrote over the past 54 years. He goes to a rabbi about it, guilty over what he is about to do. He asks the rabbi what he would do.
"I would read them," says the rabbi.
So he does. And what he finds is shocking to him and us.
Mina has been unhappy for most of the 54 years of her marriage. She fantasizes about her therapist. She mentions a man she had an affair with. She expounds about the joys of marijuana. But most of all, Doug learns that none of it is his father’s fault. His mother had been an angsty teenager all her life, and had done a very good job of covering it up. Somehow she had become a suburban housewife and hated every minute of it.
The footage from the beginning of Mike and Mina sitting on the couch also takes on a new meaning by the end. Their demeanor towards each other is distant and friendly, but certainly not intimate. And Mike eventually tells Doug that when Mina tells him that "She guesses she loves him." and that he’s "Okay" is maybe the nicest compliment he’s ever received from her.
I was fascinated by this family and Doug Block’s ability to throw out more twists and turns as the film progressed. 51 Birch St. is a thought provoking film that raises questions about marriage, happiness, and what people (especially parents) will give up, or commit to, in order to obtain both of those things.
There are a few special features included on the disk. One is called “What did you think of the movie?” and it’s basically another mini-documentary from Doug Block as he interviews family members after the film played at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s a fun, 10 minute piece, getting reactions from people who had no idea that this is what he had up his sleeve the entire time.
The other feature is a little musical number from Mike Block’s brother called “I Flunked Adultery.” He actually sings it in the documentary, but here they’ve turned it into a music video of sorts. It’s amusing, and very odd.
8 out of 10