Northwest Film Forum
Through shows like This American Life and others, National Public Radio has made a certain kind of storytelling popular. Without the support of text or images, it’s a personal style that is, almost by definition, self-involved. Depending on the narrator, the stories are sometimes witty and sometimes whiny, and almost all of them are punctuated with sappy, inappropriate music.
Well, that style of storytelling is now infecting the personal documentary, as Doug Block’s sometimes fascinating and sometimes annoying 51 Birch Street proves.
Three months after his mother dies, Doug Block’s father announces that he’s going to marry his former secretary. Doug and his sisters are initially shocked, and so Doug starts to investigate whether his now happy and outgoing father ever had an affair with this woman. Then he discovers his mother’s diaries, which gives him a whole different perspective on his parents’ marriage and forces him to see them as people instead of parents.
Sounds fascinating, right? It is. So is the home movie footage that he incorporates into the piece.
But that’s only half the story. The other half is Doug’s whiny and annoying journey of self-discovery, as spoken through his narration. It’s everything that’s bad about NPR personal stories, which means most people won’t mind it. For example, after he finds his mom’s diaries he says in his voiceover, “Mom’s secrets are here for the taking, but do I have the right?” Please! Either take them or don’t, but don’t dwell on the hesitation.
By speaking over chunks of the footage, he tries to make the documentary more about him than his parents. Luckily, his parents’ story is stronger, which makes 51 Birch Street worth watching.