I was unable to catch Doug Block's 51 BIRCH STREET at both SXSW and Sarasota this past spring, yet not because I didn't want to. Now that I have seen it, I'd like to join the praise parade. 51 BIRCH STREET is filmmaking at its most enthralling and provocative, non-fiction or otherwise. If there is any justice in this world (and Block's documentary ultimately suggests that there is, albeit in a roundabout way), this film will find as wide an audience as CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS.
Like that portrait of suppressed family life on an otherwise idyllic Long Island street (minus the creepy sexual dysfunction, of course), 51 BIRCH STREET begins as a seemingly straightforward nostalgia piece, yet it isn't long before secrets from the past crash into the present, turning a home video scrapbook into a bona fide Hollywood thriller. Soon, each newly acquired piece of information opens a new door, subverting previous emotions, shattering lifelong expectations, and casting a tornado of confusion on Block's previously sturdy family image.
Ultimately, for me, what makes 51 BIRCH STREET such a vital viewing experience is not its master craftsmanship, nor its broad, yet probing, insight into how memory shapes--and torments--us throughout our adult lives. It is Mike Block himself, a man who at first appears to be a villain, yet who ends up seeming like the greatest hero of all.
Although I'd read a lot about the film, I still went into it with fresh eyes, and I suggest you do the same. The less you know about the twists and turns, the more rewarding your viewing experience will be. And that's why I'm choosing to avoid providing any sort of plot synopsis.
51 BIRCH STREET asks a very simple, yet very, very loaded, question: if you could read your recently deceased mother's private journals, would you? While I would certainly say yes, the fact remains that my mother has never kept a private journal. Her true self lies hidden deep inside, and I fear that none of us will ever truly get to know her. Block's film challenges me to take advantage of the opportunity that I have right now, to confront her living, breathing self, and meet the real Mary Ann, the woman who was never tied down by a husband and three children. But, of course, I would never do that. That would be crossing an incrossable line.