Monday, September 24, 2007
Warning: spoilers abound below.
Rather by accident, no, entirely by accident, I found myself watching what I take to be the most profound film meditation on the meaning of marriage I’ve ever seen, 51 Birch Street, directed by Doug Block on the subject of his parents & their relationship. Like a lot of indie documentarians, Block is one of these guys who wanders around filming everything, so when he starts shooting footage of Mike & Mina & the rest of his family around his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, hardly anyone thinks twice about it. As one of his sisters puts it on a “response” film included on the DVD, even when Doug tells them this is going to be a film, their reaction is “this is a really expensive home movie.” At that point in his career, he’s directed just two other films that got to release, neither of them a serious hit, even by documentary standards. One senses that Doug’s father is a little perplexed at this non-career his son seems to have chosen, tho this is underscored by the fact that Doug & his father barely know how to talk to one another. Doug’s real emotional connection is to his mother, Mina, an intense, beautiful woman even as she pushes into her eighties, while his mechanical engineer dad seems almost a stereotype of the distant, aloof parent.
Then three things occur that completely change this not-very-promising drama. First, Mina dies rather suddenly, after a three-week bout of pneumonia. We quickly realize that both Doug and his two older sisters had simply assumed that it would be Mike who went first. They’re not at all sure what this will portend for their father.
He, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a step. Mike takes a trip from his suburban home in
The kids are completely aghast. Has dad been cheating on their mother? Has he been doing so for 40 years? They’re nowhere through their own grieving processes & suddenly Mike shows up with “Kitty or Carol or whatever her name is,” they go through a wedding at the temple that features a 12-second on-screen kiss – “eleven seconds longer than I’d ever seen him kiss my mother” – and begin to pack up the house in Port Washington, which they’re selling in order to return permanently to Florida. The children are completely stunned.
It’s during the moving process that Mike decides to hand over Mina’s diaries to his son Doug, having already agreed that Doug can “help” with the move by filming and interviewing him as they pack – the largest single part of the motion picture consists of these conversations. The diaries take up three file-drawer sized cartons, and consist over both handwritten and typed diaries going back 40 years. It’s a massive writing project, thousands of pages.
Does Doug really want to read them? Would you? He sticks his nose in them just far enough to realize that they’re loaded with commentary about the marriage itself – it’s Mina’s primary subject as a suburban stay-at-home housewife – and that she is none too glowing in her descriptions of Mike and the marriage. Doug, who (also in the vein of indie documentarians) supports himself by doing wedding videos, asks the rabbi of one of the services if he can come talk to him. Should he read these deeply personal documents? He also talks with Mina’s best friend, Natasha, who tells him emphatically that he should. The rabbi agrees.
Reading them is a revelation. The happy marriage of his parents turns out not to have been happy at all. Mina is angry & often bitter in her descriptions of it. She goes into therapy and has a deep transference with her therapist, whom she literally begs (to no avail) to sleep with her. She has an affair with one of Mike’s friends, but takes care that there is no evidence in the diary to indicate which friend that might have been. (We later meet some of them at a farewell party for Mike at the temple & wonder if maybe one of these octogenarians could have been Mina’s secret lover.) Mike & Mina discuss divorce, but never act on it. Mina even writes about Kitty, decades ago, wondering if her relationship with Mike is sexual, deciding that that is irrelevant, but concluding that “nice, pliable little Kitty” is the kind of woman Mike would or should have married if he had known what kind of an adult he was going to be. Coming, as he did, out of the service right at the end of World War 2 and marrying quickly, he and Mina never have dealt with the fact that they have different psychic & emotional needs.
Discovering his mother’s affair is at least as big a shock as his father’s quick second marriage. Natasha reminds him that their generation – now in its eighties – went through the sixties just like everyone else and discusses spouse-swapping parties, three-ways and drug use very matter of factly, tho it’s not clear whether Mike & Mina ever flirted with sex, drugs or rock-n-roll in quite the same way.
Mike tells Doug that Mina never really new how to love him. Her highest compliment ever was “You’re sort of okay, you’re better than most of the men I know.” And he knows about what he calls her fantasy sex life, her emotional identification with actors or politicians, her intense feelings for her therapist, etc. Mike admits that he doesn’t miss her, tho you can see the toll that recognition has on him.
Doug finally asks his father the question. Had he ever cheated on Mina? There is a long, awkward silence that could be interpreted any number of different ways, followed by Mike’s saying no, he never had, he’d had opportunities, but had never acted on them.
So the narrative frame of seeing their father as the cheater and Mina as the cheated-upon turns out to be exactly the opposite of what you end with in the film. Doug is still reeling from seeing his father suddenly full of life, looking to the future in his mid-80s, and obviously happy as this film draws to a close. But the process has allowed him – and his two sisters – to come to accept Kitty for the very warm, solid person she is. And it’s enabled Doug to really communicate with his father. They literally end up, at film’s end, holding hands.
I don’t think this film could have been done as fiction – so much of it depends on Mina’s diaries – Doug quotes them at length, tho you only see key phrases highlighted on the screen. It would look just too convenient a narrative in a “made-up” story – but as a documentary you get a sense of both Mina & Mike as good, warm people of great depth, who clearly had different needs and never were able to address that gap in their lives. Was Mina clinically depressed? She certainly seems so, and yet her story is not a diagnosis, any more than Mike was the automaton of an engineer his son appears to have feared going into the film. If they weren’t the picture-book happy marriage envisioned by the anniversary party at the start of the movie, they certainly chose to hold together, so that their regrets – both had plenty – don’t appear to include the decision to stay a couple even as they realized their differences.
What this film does better than any I can remember – the closest “cinematic” equivalent I can think of is perhaps Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage – is give you a sense of the depth and complexity of these two people, and of the incredible difficulty posed by the task of somehow joining two such complicated beings into a single unit. Is their marriage “a failure”? I don’t think that Doug would say yes to that. One of his sisters, on the response film, comes very close tho and breaks down at the thought that Mina might have “found happiness” had she left the marriage a quarter century earlier. My own sense is that this film does a much better job suggesting just how responsible each one of is for his or her own happiness – it’s not so much something you find as it is something you build. Mina doesn’t seem likely to have built hers anywhere else, even if being with the “wrong” man all those years couldn’t have been easy. Mike on the other hand seems to have suffered in silence – Kitty makes a point of noting that he’s a good listener and that this is his primary attraction – but he has far less difficulty in moving on, taking precisely that responsibility. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is that Mike, Mina & Kitty all end up presented as complex, admirable people – Doug Block avoids all the narrative pitfalls that would have pitted one against another. Instead, you get a sense of what 50-plus years actually means for two individuals not magically suited one to the other. That’s an enormous amount to convey in just 90 minutes.