My youngest son just graduated from preschool and I’m feeling blue. I’ve loved the place; it’s a co-op, and over four years with my two kids, the weekly morning workdays and monthly parent gatherings have given me the best (and most reassuring) education in early child development I could have imagined. So as I leave this nurturing community behind, I’ve been looking at old photographs and gathering up my son’s artwork, hoping, with these drifts of paper, to preserve something here, within my grasp, of this boy who is growing up and away faster than I can bear. I feel like I’m sitting him down on top of a very long slide, and when he shoots out the bottom, a blink from now, he’ll be 18 years old and walking off to college.
Faced with his own child about to go college, Doug Block decided to make a movie. In fact, he has been filming his daughter, Lucy, her whole life; as he puts it, “she had the great misfortune to be born right at the dawn of the consumer camcorder, and the double misfortune to have a documentary filmmaker for a father. . . I’ve long thought my footage might be part of a film someday, a film that somehow encapsulates the parenting experience.” But now with Lucy entering her final year of high school, the idea for a film takes on urgency, and Block edits all his footage of Lucy’s childhood, her last year at home, and his own father’s home movies of Block’s childhood into a bittersweet and intimate exploration of fathering and coming of age, The Kids Grow Up (2010).
“I suppose my dad’s partly to blame,” Block comments, for his urge to document his family on film; over beautifully grainy scenes of his childhood in Long Island, he remarks, “These silent 8mm images remain the strongest memories I have of my early years.” His dad was not an easy man (in fact, Block’s relationship with his parents is the subject of a powerful documentary, 51 Birch Street) and his dad acknowledges, “We never really achieved any real intimate relationship with each other.” But over footage of his dad hanging out with Lucy, Block echoes Mark Twain — “it’s amazing how much kinder and wiser my father suddenly became once I was a parent” — and feels freer now to talk with him about how Block was fathered. His dad says quite honestly, “I never learned, I never knew; I lost my father when I was very young. It wasn’t natural. It was a learned experience for me, and I stumbled my way through it, mostly.” He earns his son’s — and the viewer’s — sympathy with his candor, which only deepens when Block asks for advice about handling the empty nest. “It was hell,” his father says flatly. “You’re faced with your own life. Major step, as I say. No advice at all.”
Growing up, moving away, becoming a parent — all those transitions ultimately improved Block’s relationship with his dad. His connection with his graceful, articulate daughter Lucy, on the other hand, looks so strong, the viewer begins to fear that the filmmaking itself might damage their relationship. She is patient with his questions, even as a child, when her pixie face fills the screen and he asks, off-camera, “So, um, do you have happy memories of your childhood?” “I am a child,” she responds, deadpan, “This is my childhood.” He returns to this and similar temperature-taking questions periodically, and one sweet montage shows a variety of her responses to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”: she wants to sing; she wants to do nothing while her husband makes all the money; the grumpy high schooler dismisses him, “I don’t know, ask me when I grow up;” and finally Block jumps back in time to show a younger Lucy who pokes fun at her dad, responding with a sly smile, “Maybe I’ll be a documentary filmmaker.”
She would be an excellent documentarian; she’d be acutely sensitive to her subjects’ privacy and the proper limits of her camera. Her dad tries to establish ground rules for this final year of filming: “So, what can’t I film?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy answers, “I don’t like you filming me out in public, or, like, going about any normal day-to-day activities.”
“Then how do I show your life?”
“I don’t know. Good question.” She’s lying on the couch, laptop open, looking irritated and bored, but he tries again, “So as long as I don’t shoot too much in public and embarrass you, you’re OK?”
“I can’t promise that.”
But you’ll let me know?”
So they continue, filming college tours and volleyball games, her driving test (she passes) and her French boyfriend’s long visit, all interspersed with childhood footage of her dancing, playing at the park, or going to get her ears pierced (she practically hops out of the frame, “The best moment of my life is right now!!”) as he tries to build a portrait of this beloved child and the close relationship that they share. He keeps the camera rolling even when his teenaged daughter says of his filming “Honestly, you are making it so I’m more excited to get away. You don’t want to be doing that.” He keeps the camera rolling as he walks away from the difficult conversation, angry, the camera now just shooting the floor. He puts the whole long sequence in the film, and it doesn’t make him look so great, but it does make him look honest. Then he comforts himself (and the viewer) with a scene of preschool-age Lucy saying brightly, “I like videotaping! I like when I see myself on TV!”
The film is never so didactic as to ask, but a viewer can’t help but wonder how this relationship was affected by the persistent filming. There is so much that we see, not just the interviews but also drives in the car and playing at the park and breakfast and tooth brushing — the daily stuff of life for which most of us don’t get out the camera. The fact that we see this footage seems to prove that at some level the camera was invisible for Lucy, just part of her dad’s presence. Her mom, Marjorie, who’s a source of dry wit and wisdom, jokes about it with Doug when he expresses hope that Lucy will enjoy looking over the footage. Marjorie nods thoughtfully, smiles, and says, “And just think, when she works all this through in therapy she can bring the footage with her!”
But although Block is rarely on camera himself, he’s the one who winds up really exposed here. His daughter, after all, who looks a model of intelligence and poise to me, could always dismiss her portrayal in the film as simply one person’s subjective view. What we get of her father — his voice, his questions, his editorial choices — is no less open to interpretation, of course, but if we don’t like it he has only himself to blame. Like his father before him, Doug Block ultimately comes across as a pretty sympathetic guy. He’s facing a change he’d been dreading for years; after all, Lucy’s only about ten when he says, “It’s hard having you grow up. Hard on your old man.” She laughs but refuses to sympathize, “It’s harder for you than it is for me and it shouldn’t be!”
But I can sympathize. I can understand his desire to hang on to something of his child while she moves on with her life, though I’m glad he realizes it’s more important to be a good dad than to make a good film. When Lucy asks him to stop filming, he does; some months later, when she invites him to resume the project, he does that, too, and he takes direction as she packs for college and shows him various things she wants captured on film. Finally, having created this vision of their past, he expresses his vision of their future, which doesn’t involve film at all. Over footage of Lucy as a kid, he says, “I close my eyes and picture the two of us talking together. There’s no camera rolling, just two grownups having a great conversation. One of many to come in the years ahead. ”
I’ll keep Block’s bittersweet film in mind as my kids grow up. I thought of him filming when I took the camera out and started snapping pictures of preschool graduation, my son looking both proud and a bit embarrassed at the fuss. But when the brief ceremony ended, I tucked the camera in my bag and we went out to lunch, and we had a great conversation — one of many, and many more to come.