Tuesday, September 16, 2008

paper musings

So, remember how I had those papers to write? Well, it's Tuesday night, and my documentary paper is due in about 15 hours. And while I'd like to say that I just copied it onto a flash drive all ready to be printed, it just ain't so.

If you just want to be disgusted, I'll understand. But, for the stronger willed, read on. I am going to attempt to (at least mostly) write my paper tonight, and I am going to start by free-flowing on the themes I want to explore in my paper. Just to warn ya, it may get long!

Aaaannnnd, off we go!

51 Birch Street tells the story of the Block family from an insider viewpoint. Documentary film maker Doug Block explores the complicated history of who his parents are and who they were. In the beginning his voice over explains that the footage we see was taken for posterity's sake; shots of his mother having a martini, getting ready for the day, his parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. Then, unexpectedly, Block's mother dies and the story begins to unfold. Three months after her death Block's dad, Mike Block, remarries -- his former secretary, Kitty-- arousing suspicions of an affair. The twist comes when, after delving into his mothers journals, Block discovers that it was his mother, and not his father, who had an extra-marital affair, as well as an unrequited love for her therapist. Block explores what can happen when you start to ask the questions you never wanted the answers to in the first place, but does so with a kind of humanity that would be missing from the story if filmed by anyone other than himself. Through his use of interview style and cinematographic language, Block is able to tell his family's emotional tale honestly. (This is pretty much my thesis, in case you were wondering)

One of the key components to the modern documentary is the interview. For a subject to share their thoughts and feelings openly, the interviewer needs to establish a repore (sp) with the subject. With 51 Birch Street, the interviewer himself is a character in the events, and so is already intimately acquainted with his subjects. However, some of the most interesting scenes are those in which those closest to Block the son and brother, seem the farthest away from Block the film maker with camera. At the very beginning of the film Block is taking a shot from the bottom of a staircase, his mother walks out of the room, enters the bathroom. He has shot her from below and when she realizes this, she yells that she won't come out because he has broken her trust. This one sentence from his footage deals with one of the more fundamental questions Block has about his film -- should he read (or have read) her journals? Has he betrayed her trust by looking into who she really was-- at least in the the "she" of the 60's when the journals were written. Later he asks his mother's best friend who hems and haws over it before saying that is exactly what she would have wanted, for someone to really know her. Another example of his interview techniques; this is a woman who has known him all his life, and yet she treats this with a composure that portrays her firm understanding that this is an interview and other people will see it, so she needs to choose her words carefully and she does. He films his mother's friend in a more classical frame, face in left hand of frame, camera on tripod, flower nicely placed in background, whereas his family's interviews are often hand held with the subject centered and the camera almost too close for comfort. He asks a young rabbi about the journals, and he admits that he would have read them, hoping to gain insight into his family and thereby himself. Again he uses the same classic interview cinematography style, putting the subject at a distance from himself and the audience to create a feeling that, while their opinions are valid, they may not be quite what he is looking for.

And so by the end of the film he realizes, through the lens, that the question of right or wrong in this instance is not so cut and dried. He shows us this throughout the film by use of plastic materials. Specifically, there are many shots of driving down Birch Street in fall. The main part of the film, excluding old family videos, takes place over the course of about four or five months-- it can't be fall all that time. Autumn represents crossroads, a time of indecision. A melancholy time that makes us glorify what summer was and what winter will be, without allowing for the reality of what those seasons were . The only shot of winter is when he his mother dies. Although his voice over talks of life going on and moving forward, it is clear through the use of trees clothed only in snow and shots of his own nuclear family sitting dejected in their apartment that he has not moved on emotionally from his mother's death. In one of only two outside the family interviews, Block speaks with a psychologist who is an expetrt on father/son relationships who points out that his issues with his father (who at this point has not been cleared of having an affair) are more about loss and the ways in which they each deal with it. His father marries another woman right away, and Block makes a movie about it.

OK, my brain might actually explode if I write much more. am going to go to bed and try and come up with something decent in the morning, and if not then...well, my prof will have to wait till Thursday or Friday and that's that. If you want to read my conclusion, look back tomorrow!

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