51 Birch Street

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 04/02/06 13:00:38

"Scenes from a Marriage."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“When it comes to your parents,” observes documentarian Doug Block, wryly, “maybe ignorance is bliss.”

Like many – perhaps most – adult children of high-functioning parents, Doug and his siblings, Ellen and Karen, were secure in their assumption of their parents’ marriage as a solid and loving one. All three were rocked, first, by their mother Mina’s sudden death after a three week bout with pneumonia; second, by their father Mike’s announcement, three months later, that he was marrying Carol, whom he called “Kitty,” who had been his secretary some thirty years earlier.

Having interviewed his parents and filmed them over the years, “just trying to capture them for posterity,” Doug had listened for hours to his mother, with whom he had always felt a deep connection, but never really heard her when she spoke of troubles in her relationship with Mike. He never made the connection to the two of them when she quipped, sagely, “Nothing ever is direct... Everything is circuitous.”

When Mike and Kitty dropped a third bombshell on the family – that they were selling the home at 51 Birch Street in New York that Mike and Mina had lived in for fifty four years and moving to Florida – long-kept secrets began to pour out in the form of family photos and three large boxes of Mina’s personal diaries, challenging Doug on a journey of discovery he had never fathomed. (Leafing through an old family album, Doug comes across one startling snapshot and notes, bemused, “Why do I suddenly care that Kitty was a guest at my bar mitzvah, back in 1966.”)

Narrated by Doug Block, featuring revealing highlights from Mina’s diaries and candid conversations with family members and friends – including one interview with Mina’s brother Josh, who entertains for the camera with his self-composed ditty, “I Flunk Adultery” – 51 Birch Street is a fascinating glimpse at not just one American family but of a way of life in post-WWII America in the 1950s and ‘60s, from the days when a girl married a boy simply because he was “really quite a gorgeous guy,” to the days when dad brought home the bacon and mom stayed home with the kids, to a time when women began to chafe for their independence and embarked on their own journeys of discovery of self, their sexuality, and their places in the larger world around them.

Filled as much with humor as sadness, 51 Birch Street is also a moving chronicle of one man coming to terms with deep-buried realities about the dynamics of his family, coming to understand and love his parents not just in spite of their foibles but because of them, and coming to really know and appreciate the father he had always held emotionally at arm’s length.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.