One of the things that has always fascinated me about “fly-on-the-wall-style” documentaries and their creators is the constant push and pull between their efforts to “just observe” and the unavoidable (and undeniable) impact a camera has on nearly every human being that has ever been the subject of a documentary film. (Exhibit A: the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens.)
When his distressed daughter, soon to leave for college, says through her tears as he attempts yet another interview with her: “I’m really pissed off that you’re doing this at all. I hate it.”
“I’m sorry,” says Block, in a weedy voice, but he still doesn’t take his camera off her.
“That was really hard because the whole time I’m thinking, do I turn it off?” says Block. “But Lucy hadn’t said to turn it off. She knows I’m rolling because there’s a red light on the camera. All I wanted to do was put it down and wrap my arms around her.” Why didn’t he? “Because your instincts as a documentarian take over and you go: OK, she hasn’t told me to turn it off and this is an important discussion. I can always decide later not to include it if it’s going over the line.
Even as a small child in home video footage, Lucy has perfected the eye-roll that greets her father, his camera and his often stupid questions. Did she have a happy childhood, he asks a tiny, bright-eyed Lucy. “I am a child,” she says witheringly. “This is my childhood.” It is this type of footage that makes the Block home videos different from the kind of thing other parents film – the way he interviews his family as if they were any other documentary subjects, and the way they have some of their most open discussions on camera. Even before Lucy hits puberty, Block is seen telling her how hard it is on him that she is growing up. “Harder for you than it is for me,” says Lucy, swinging in a swivel chair, “and it shouldn’t be.”
Strange stuff there, and no mistake. I don’t have the stamina (or stomach) to be a documentary filmmaker, so I can’t walk a mile or a foot in Block’s shoes. But if I had “wrap my arms around my kid” coming in second to my “instincts as a documentarian taking over,” I’d know that something was very, very wrong.
Emine Saner’s final thoughts suggest she feels quite the same way:
For all its bittersweet anguish and emotion, The Kids Grow Up is also a funny film, but at the end, when Block turns the camera on his baby grandson and asks: “So David, what do you want to be when you grow up?” you want to say, “Hurry up and learn to walk, David – and then run as fast as you can.