Though baby boomers did not actually invent narcissism, it is a cliché of almost monumental obviousness that they alone perfected it; smoothed out its rougher edges, took it mainstream, and, in the process, made it such an inescapable part of our culture that it no longer reeks of stigma. In fact, it’s practically heroic; the more brazen and unapologetic, the better. And as these tired, self-obsessed retreads move from the navel gazing of youth to the even more intolerable inward tilt of middle age, coated with that all-important sheen of regret and nostalgic sentimentality, we can look forward to many more efforts like 51 Birch Street; a documentary from filmmaker Doug Block, ostensibly about the process of demystifying one’s parents, though in the end it amounts to little more than an entire generation trying desperately to stave off death. Still, despite the preciously personal “look back” that almost always appears hopelessly naïve and narrow (a wider culture never seems to exist in these movies), the film works; perhaps not in the manner intended, but on a level more enlightening than the original conceit. Overall, the portrait is less about shocking revelations and hidden secrets than the very idea of disillusionment and its “audacity” to invade the very lives so often committed to social uplift. Ultimately, it’s a tale of infantilized adults refusing to admit that against the odds — but unavoidably, it seems, they’ve become exactly what they railed against.
It’s a curious thing, this sudden, irreversible confrontation with the truth; though it rarely happens outside of the more pampered, isolated circles of our world. After all, who on earth lives to be 50 years old, still clinging to romantic visions of their parents? Believing daddy never told a lie, or that mommy was the bestest, prettiest lady in the whole neighborhood are the expected, almost obligatory indulgences of youth, but as one grows up a bit, it is as necessary to swing in the opposite direction; throwing unending accusations of hurt, neglect, and abuse in their faces with the velocity only the self-righteous can muster. First they are heroes, then they are villains, but as adulthood is secured, a balance of sorts occurs, and they are defiantly neither. In fact, they are almost preposterously ordinary — decent, perhaps, maybe even a little dull, but neither here nor there. Just some people who didn’t have a fucking clue like all the rest of us, got married, experienced the requisite ups and downs of family life, and endured for no other reason than simple boredom.
Surely there are monsters afoot, but on the whole, most of us relate to the absolute middle of the road. And yet, the boomers can’t seem to find that particular pathway – though they never could — and they insist, even through their own experiences with children, that their parents must break the mold. They are either solely responsible for the troubles that afflict us, or they hide the entirety their lives in a closet, only at death letting go of the lies. It’s sheer idiocy, of course, but not a reason to blast the film. In fact, it’s an essential document of our collective inability to chase away the ghosts. Full of shit, yes, but dead-on as a portrait of how we now live.
Mr. Block, as a director, films just about everything that isn’t nailed down (he’s like old pro Ross McElwee in more ways than one), but only after his mother’s unexpected death from pneumonia does he start to piece together the resulting film. Within weeks of the loss, his 83-year-old father, Mike, announces that he’s getting married to an old friend (and lover, it is suspected, though he later denies it), selling the family homestead, and moving to Florida. It seems inconceivable that old Mike wouldn’t even pause to mourn, an oddity compounded by his confession that he won’t miss his late wife one bit. Doug immediately seizes upon this statement as a confirmation that his dad is an utter mystery, the typical sort from the World War II era who kept his feelings close to his vest and any affection for his family even closer.
As expected, Doug releases the old warhorse, “I never really knew my father,” which is a sentiment felt only in retrospect, as it became important only after men were expected to sob like grandmothers at the slightest provocation. “He ran our home like an efficiency expert!” Doug’s sister crows, which is more twaddle unleashed by a generation who, with deadpan seriousness, were (and are) more likely to respect the man seen in public with a snuggly than one who worked his ass to the bone and paid the bills. From all appearances, dad was largely indifferent and humorless, but there’s something to be said for sucking it up day after day and meeting your obligations. In a day and age where all too many fathers put implausible dreams above the lives of their children (following their bliss, or whatever idiotic phrase is now in vogue), we have a lot to learn from those who simply buckled down in the name of responsibility. To be sure, they may in fact have been assholes in a permanent state of grumpiness, but at least they never gave up the ship.
Doug then discovers a massive collection of old journals kept by his mother, which leads one to conclude that while dad was grinding away, she had little else to do with her time but turn her writing hand into an arthritic claw. Dad wasn’t much for small talk and tossing pigskins, but at least he avoided mom’s star turn as ego incarnate. Page after page drip with undue vanity; dreams of romance, need, and hand-wringing that would make even a teenager blush. Here was an unhappy woman — “too much woman,” as she says in one entry — though one wonders if anything on earth could have fit the bill. She lusted after (and eventually had an affair with) her therapist, which is about as textbook a case of self-involvement as anyone could ever hope to invent. Unless one is a head of state or one of our brightest minds, a diary is utterly pointless anyway, and this woman’s explosion of expression the height of pathetic justification.
But instead of wondering whether mom would have been better off at the booby hatch a few weekends a month, she is transformed by Doug into a complex woman, though nothing could be further from the truth. She endured a loveless marriage, ached for attention, and felt trapped by her suburban drudgery, but at no point can we be expected to believe that these are anything but the self-inflicted wounds of the decidedly idle. At best, she lived as so many do, only few have the time to chronicle every waking second in a similar fashion. Rather than pity her obliviousness, Doug sees a victim; a martyr for all femininity and the polar opposite of how he had pictured her all these years. In the Q&A session following the screening, he even revealed how a viewer saw his mother as a feminist icon. I’ll have to check my dog-eared copy of The Feminine Mystique to be certain, but I’m pretty sure Betty Friedan left the fucking house now and again. At the very least, I know she wrote for an audience other than herself.
In essence, discovering that your parents never really loved each other is not exactly peering through yellowing parchment and finding pop’s time card from a stint at Auschwitz, or that mom drowned two sets of twins before you came along. Let’s save the deep sadness for genuine tragedy, instead of a few minor cracks in Camelot’s edifice. After all, Mr. and Mrs. Block were married over 50 years; anyone who thinks they didn’t check out long before death intervened is so hopeless a romantic as to believe in fairy tales and apple-cheeked cherubs dancing under the stars. Rather than boil with rage, however, I remained fascinated. It’s a well-made movie, to be sure, and a near-flawless example of the genre. If it weren’t so bloody serious, it could almost be a parody, though I doubt it strives to be so clever. While bodies burn around the globe, and civility falls away at home, this is what keeps an entire generation up nights.
It was at this moment that I remembered an old interview with Richard Nixon, also from Mike’s generation, where he visibly resented the insinuation that because he wasn’t prone to slobbering all over his kids every hour of the day, he didn’t love them. Even though Nixon perhaps erred too strongly on the side of callous disregard, his point is clear enough. We’ve been so trained to believe in our right to boundless joy and affection that we can’t stand the thought that we might be the products of men and women devoted to the perpetuation of their opposite. So to avoid having any future artists standing agape in the blast of their family’s punctured balloon, let’s all repeat the following in unison: Your parents weren’t happy, you’re not happy, and your children are doomed to repeat the trend. It’s what we do. Now get over it.