Scenes from a Marriage: The story of "51 Birch Street"

Doug Block is an award winning New York-based filmmaker. In this often poignant discussion with David Siminoff, CEO of Spark Networks (JDate’s owner and operator), Block delves deeply into the story behind his critically acclaimed documentary, “51 Birch Street,” as well as the joys and sorrows of married life from one generation to the next. While focusing on the dissolution of his parents’ relationship, Block’s tale of searing family drama reveals both intensely personal truths and the universality of our quest for a love that lasts.

DAVID: This is an astonishing film, one that will stick with me for a really long time.

DOUG BLOCK: Well, thanks. It’s a limited release, but a national one. The reviews and audience reception have been unbelievable. The really amazing part to me is we have sales pending to both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera.

DAVID: Wow! So let me ask you to give us a précis of the film and your background.

DOUG BLOCK: I’m a documentary filmmaker. I have been for a while, but this was definitely a documentary I never set out to make. I think it’s a little nuts trying to make a film about your parents or their marriage. It just came in the aftermath of a number of events in the family, practically one after the other, starting with the unexpected death of my mother. Then, getting a call from my father about three months later announcing that he was about to move in with his secretary from 40 years ago. This was after my parents had been married, I thought happily, for 54 years.

So they got married and my father sold the family house where my sisters and I grew up out on Long Island, so that he could permanently move down to Florida with his new wife. I went to Long Island about two weeks before the movers came, thinking it was for the last time. Among all the other things being packed up from our family history, I discovered three large boxes of my mother’s diaries, going back almost 40 years. Even then I wasn’t convinced that there was a film to be made, but my father and I started talking. It was the first time I’d heard him start talking about my mother and about the marriage. All this made me realize I knew so little about my father and about my parents’ lives together. And I thought I have two weeks before he leaves and everything’s gone; this is sort of my last opportunity to get to know him. I think it was the next time that I went out there that I asked him, “Do you miss Mom?” And he said no. That’s when I think I first realized that yes, this was a film.I asked him, ‘Do you miss Mom?’ And he said no. That’s when I think I first realized that yes, this was a film.

DAVID: But I take it the footage you used of her, were just things you had filmed earlier.

DOUG BLOCK: Another reason why I made the film was because I knew I had previous interview footage with her. Ten years ago, I sat both my parents down separately and did family history interviews with them, which is something I recommend that everyone do. It was up until I made the film, the best way of learning who my parents were. That’s where that footage comes from. I also thought at one point I might make a documentary where I followed up on some of the weddings that I’d shot and continue a longitudinal study of a couple of marriages… Get at what marriage is all about from sort of a long-range scope.

DAVID: Like “7Up” with marrieds.

DOUG BLOCK: Yeah, in a sense. I was still mulling the idea and I was at my parents’, so I thought I would ask them about their wedding and their views on marriage, and that’s where I got that footage. So knowing I had that was really critical. I wouldn’t have done the film if it was just my father’s point of view. And of course I didn’t imagine in the beginning that I would be delving into the diaries.

DAVID: Are you happy you read your mother’s diary? Did you learn something that you didn’t truly know beforehand, or were these more confirmations of what your gut told you?

DOUG BLOCK: Some things were a confirmation and some were totally out of left field. You never think of your parents as sexual beings. It’s not like my mother wasn’t attractive, but I never thought of her that way and particularly when she got older I certainly didn’t see her that way. Reading about her longings and her frustration, not just sexually but intellectually… It was really strange. I was trying to be objective and look at it as a filmmaker and storyteller but it kept creeping in, “This is my mom, you know!” That was hard.

DAVID: In the film, there’s a natural tension between happiness and fulfillment as a generationally defined force. Your father seems to have come right from “the greatest generation” in Tom Brokaw’s book, and if you asked him, would your father say that he lived a happy life?

DOUG BLOCK: Boy, I think he would say something that he says towards the end of the film, which was that he has wonderful memories except for his time with his wife. When the movers are coming and he’s looking around the house and reflecting on it, he says it’s a wonderful place, filled with shrubs and trees… Watching them grow. I think he’s sort of metaphorically referring to the kids and bringing us up. It was this whole suburban dream that he really bought into and I think he loved. The house for him had many happy memories and he’s one to latch on to the memories of the good times, not the bad ones. But the marriage was not a particularly happy one. Not a bad one though, you see. One problem with the film I think is that maybe it makes it out to be worse than it was. I think they learned how to accommodate each other.

DAVID: That’s the brilliance of the film. If it was truly awful, they would have gotten divorced.

DOUG BLOCK: Exactly.

DAVID: But it’s the mediocrity in the middle. If you turn up the heat one degree at a time, a frog in a frying pan doesn’t know to jump, so it just boils to death. And it felt like that. Your father had just boiled to death over a long time, emotionally.

DOUG BLOCK: Yeah, he’d shut down. He just retreated, you know, and would go down to his basement workshop and work into the wee hours. It’s a shame. Now that he’s seen [the movie] many times, I think it’s become a bit painful for him because I think it forces him to reflect on just how much of his time he spent in a marriage where he was not happy. And it’s not that he was miserable, but he just didn’t have any emotional life in it and now he does. He knows what he missed, I think. That’s hard. As happy as he is now to finally have it, the film is a reminder of how long he didn’t have it. That was his generation too, you know. We don’t do that now.

DAVID: Looking back, do you wish they had gotten divorced?

DOUG BLOCK: Oh, boy. Knowing now how it was, I wish that if they were that unhappy that they had gotten divorced. I can’t say I would have been at all happy about them getting divorced while I was still in the house. It’s a selfish point of view, I know. And given that I never perceived them as unhappy, it would have been a real shock to find that out then. They did such a good job covering it all up. But who wants to feel like they’re the result of an unhappy marriage. That’s why we ended it the way we did, with what my mother says… What a thing to haunt you in your dreams, you know?

DAVID: Is it giving something away to tell the readers her quote?

DOUG BLOCK: No, it’s okay because they’ll forget it, I think, and get caught up. What a question to carry around with you as a son, to have your mother say, “Aren’t you glad we got married?” Yes, I’m very grateful that I’m around and I exist. It’s really an odd feeling to know that your parents would have been so much happier had they not gotten together. It was a real mismatch, a product of their times. My mother was brought up in an educated, cultured Jewish household in the Bronx. Her wedding day came four days after her birthday and she talked about being really angry that the wedding was after her birthday because she got married at 24. It would have looked a lot better being married at 23. They’re so much a product of their times and influences. If you didn’t get married young, something was wrong with you.

DAVID: For me, the most powerful moment of the whole film came when you stopped the car and your father was in the passenger seat and you, the director, were clearly in control. It seemed like you’d lived a life where you really couldn’t get your father to simply stop and have a good chat with you. And his sense of resignation to so many things at that moment, his feeling of just being tired and giving in to his own wants is the feeling I’ll most take away from this. Did you re-connect with your dad in the making of the film or did you remain emotionally voyeuristic behind the camera?

DOUG BLOCK: No, we totally reconnected. Everything you see in that last scene was real. That was a huge connection. That conversation was so night and day from where we started two weeks earlier. And it’s not like we had a bad relationship. I loved my father and I knew he loved me – we were fine as long as we weren’t stuck in a room alone together because it was always uncomfortable talking. It wasn’t until very, very late in the editing that I came up with this one line of narration that I’m very proud of because it really sums up how I felt. Something like, “No matter how old I get, I always feel like a kid around my father.” I was approaching 50 and he was 83 and it was still so true. It has to do with how strongly you decide things about yourself and your parents when you’re six, seven years old. Left to our own devices, we just didn’t have the capability to break through all that. I knew he wasn’t going to change and it was tough for me to say the things I’ve always wanted to say, as it is for so many adult children with their parents.

DAVID: With your filmmaking, some of the editorial, creative decisions, like how you used the text from the diary, were just beautiful.
No matter how old I get, I always feel like a kid around my father… It has to do with how strongly you decide things about yourself and your parents when you’re six, seven years old.

DOUG BLOCK: It was hard picking the selections from the diary. I had 35 years of material to pore through really quickly, and I needed to see a lot to feel like I hadn’t missed anything. And then to have the responsibility of creating your mother’s legacy from bits and pieces of her diary; a word here and a phrase there; and even how you choose to show it, , whether you pan or zoom and all that stuff. It was really hard to know which ones to pick and what added up to a fully rounded portrait.

DAVID: What was the toughest scene to have to leave on the cutting room floor?

We actually left the most powerful scene by far, on the cutting room floor. It had to do with my wife and our relationship. It was actually quite amazing, and my producing partner cried every time she saw it, but it became too much. It skewed the film too much toward us and I was trying to strike a delicate balance there. I wanted to bring in my own marriage just as a reflection of my parents’, but the scene made it seem almost as if the purpose behind my search was to learn about my own marriage.

DAVID: Every time I hear of someone who’s been married for 50 years, I no longer know if that’s time to spike the football in the end zone and do a victory dance, or to kind of lick wounds.

DOUG BLOCK: I felt the same way and then I heard a podcast. These guys in their twenties saw the movie in Grand Rapids and did a podcast and one of them said something that really struck me. He said, “Well, you know there’s something to be said for 50 years. If it was a business that was around for 50 years, everybody would say that’s really successful, even if it went down in flames after 50 years.”

DAVID: How much does emotional destiny play a role in a love connection, in your mind? That is, are some people destined to be unfulfilled in one person, one marriage, one life?

DOUG BLOCK: That’s a deep question, isn’t it? You know, if I had any better idea I’d be giving you an advice column rather than making documentaries. But I don’t. I really tried my hardest not to make statements about marriage in the film. I do make a point of saying that I like to play a little game when I’m shooting weddings. To see who I could predict have this connection that’s so strong you just know it’s going to last. And others I just don’t get that feeling from. I often wonder whether my predictions are going to hold. Having been married 21 years now, I can tell you it’s a lot of work and I think we have a better marriage than most. We have a really good marriage, but it’s hard to keep alive. You have kids, you get busy with your work… You don’t necessarily have the exact same interests. It takes a real commitment to make it work. If you don’t both have a really strong will to have it succeed and do the work that’s necessary to get past the inevitable rocky moments, it’s going to collapse. I realize how lucky I am to be with the woman I’m with. What’s so hard in a long-term relationship is the tendency to take it all for granted. I think that’s the killer of long marriages. You stop doing the things that are so important. The little things. Even paying attention. I know and my wife knows that when the chips are down, we’re there for each other, always. We both know that we need to carve out time for each other and when we’re bothered by something, we know how to tell each other.

DAVID: What would you tell singles to look for when they’re dating so they end up in an emotionally fulfilling situation that has that balance and broader fulfillment?

DOUG BLOCK: To tell you the truth, the first thing I’d look for is, “Do they have a sense of humor? Do they laugh at your jokes and mean it?” I swear, I don’t know how two people could be together if they don’t find each other funny. It’s a fundamental sensibility, an outlook on life. My wife and I go to a movie and we’re laughing at the same stuff. We like the same music and a lot of the same art… It’s a little spooky sometimes.

DAVID: Your wife is Jewish?

DOUG BLOCK: Yeah. All things being equal, I figured I’d probably marry a Jewish woman because I’d probably have more in common, in terms of values and even humor. But it’s not like I went out and sought one. It’s not like I can afford to be that picky! They didn’t have JDate back then, so I would have taken the first good offer.

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