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Its not therapy, says Doug Block about his intimate family movies 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up, in which he probes, respectively, his parents 54-year marriage and his relationship with his daughter on the eve of her going to college. In fact, its the opposite of therapy. In the same way Birch Street was my way of putting off grieving for my mother, Kids was my way of putting off the empty nest.
After each film premiered, the 57-year-old filmmaker celebrated with a party. Then, he says, Id go back home and crash, because Id have to face what I avoided.
Blocks ability to take a step back from his most personal subject matter may be the secret to his films successes. As he says, Its about how I can get out of the way and make these stories move other people. In 2007, he crafted a list of the The Ten Rules of Personal Documentary: Rule No. 1Dont make it all about you (even though, of course, its all about you).
The New Yorkbased Block, whose latest, Kids, opens on Friday (see review below), never intended to be the guru of personal documentariesa label that he jokingly derides as what some people might call glorified home movies. He planned to be a big-time fiction filmmaker, he says. I never wanted to make documentaries growing up. They were boring. It wasnt until he saw Shermans March, Ross McElwees epic meditation on love in the era of nuclear weapons, that he realized documentaries could be funny, director-driven, and as creative as fiction films.
His first feature, 1991s To Heck With Hollywood!, which follows three hapless indie-film aspirants, may have helped validate his decision to move into nonfiction. After co-producing Peter Friedmans Silverlake Life: The View From Here, the devastating 1993 doc that follows a couple dying from AIDS, Block turned his lens further inward with 1998s Home Page, a look at proto-bloggers and his own efforts to represent himself online (giving birth to the still-active nonfiction forum d-word.com).
But it was with 2006s critically acclaimed 51 Birch Street that Block found his form. As a testament to the movies universality, it drew a diverse group of fans, from Stephen Sondheim to Judd Apatow to Michel Gondry, who champions Block for his ability to find the extraordinary in the patient observation of everyday life.
Though the docs have been tricky to make, because of the weight and responsibility that comes with capturing your own family onscreen, Block sets up basic ground rules to protect his subjects: I never shoot when they dont want me to shoot, he says, adding, OK, I might protest a little, but then I put the camera down.
In a key scene from The Kids Grow Up, for example, his daughter, Lucy, sits as if for a formal interview, but then protests: Im really pissed off that youre doing this right now, she says through tears. Instead of experiencing me going away to college, youre just trying to film it. Blocks response acutely sums up his process: Im trying to do both.
Making Kids did present Block with the single hardest thing Ive ever had to shoot professionally, and it wasnt his daughter. Midway through Lucys last year in high school, his wife, Marjorie Silver, suffered a severe depressive episode. He struggled with whether to video-tape her, but eventually did. Shes committed to destigmatizing the disease, says Block. She gets over it, and then we move on.
One of his close collaborators, Esther Robinsonwho produced Home Page, and directed the Warhol Factory doc A Walk Into the Sea, which Block, in turn, producedsays whats important to understanding Dougs work is that hes surrounded by tough, truth-telling women, she says. These ladieshis wife and daughterdo not let him get away with anything.
As a logical follow-up to Kids, Block is now starting a new project about his marriage to Silver on the eve of their 25th anniversary. As a wedding videographer on the sidehe has shot some 120 nuptialsBlock hopes to bring the same candid humor and sensitivity to another deceptively simple subject: What makes it work for some couples, he asks, and why doesnt it work for others?
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