Viewer’s Discretion: ‘51 Birch Street’ and ‘Making A Murderer’


’51 BIRCH STREET’ (APPLE, SUNDANCE)

Thank goodness for people who like to work out their problems in public, because they have single-handedly enlivened the dysfunctional family documentary genre, and I’m a sucker for those. In “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block mourns the death of his mother and then is blindsided when his father decides to go live in Florida with the woman who had been his secretary 40 years before.

It starts out as an innocent effort to document his parents starting with their 50th wedding anniversary, but after his mother’s death and his father’s decision, Block begins to have suspicions about his father’s past and gets his sisters on camera to speculate along with him. Recounting the story of his family, and with the attitude you’d expect from someone who was much closer to his mother than his father, Block begins to paint a picture of their marriage from his point of view.

But the opportunity to go through his mother’s handwritten diaries — she had kept them for years and years — reveals a much more complicated picture that makes for a compelling film. Drawing on the expectations that were heaped on the Baby Boomers, and the fairy tales about adult life that kept them in check, Block paints a portrait of a doomed generation as encapsulated through his parents.


‘MAKING A MURDERER’ (NETFLIX)

This true crime documentary series made a big splash in its first season, following the case of Steven Avery, once wrongly-convicted for rape and now, according to the series, wrongly-convicted for murder, along with his nephew, Brendan Dassey. The series accomplished several things at once, most significantly painstakingly documenting the slow crawl of a criminal trial, but also in portraying people in our country who exist on the cultural margins, helpless against power.

But the second season sits more quietly on the streaming service as the horrible truth that reality plods along, very often without the kind of resolution that satisfies the typical binge watcher. The longer this goes on, the more frustrating it becomes. The more frustrating it becomes, the more fans of the current crime explosion move onto things that give them more immediate gratification, leaving the case and the series in a maddening, but all-too-real purgatory.

In Season Two, the case against Avery seems even dicier, thanks the efforts of superstar lawyer Kathleen Zellner, who takes center stage in the narrative and does such meticulous work on every aspect of the case that it serves the horrible point of showing just how hard it is to beat a murder rap once you have been found guilty. Being found guilty is the precedent the system uses regardless of whatever counter-evidence crops up.

I’ve been amazed that anyone would want to binge watch this series. As well-done as it is, between the minutiae of the criminal court system and the hopeless despair of the Avery family, I needed a break from episode to episode to absorb what I had seen.

The real main character in the series is the American justice system, and you don’t often have any sympathy for it. On one ends stands a fraternal order charged with finding a perpetrator, any perpetrator, by whatever means necessary. On the other sits panels of cloistered, often elitist decision-makers who apply abstract principles and guidelines to the real lives of people, though often without any empathy.

And in between, there is all of us, right down to our most disadvantaged, who are left to stumble through a labyrinthine system of non-intuitive procedures and standards that grind along at the feeblest of speeds. To be in criminal trouble is to be caught in a mechanism that there is no quick exit from, whether innocent or guilty. As a painfully precise, slow-paced nuts-and-bolts explanation of how our system works, there’s no better at replicating the system’s test of people’s patience than “Making A Murderer.”


Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on May 24, 2019.

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