The Invisible Wedding Guest

By Colin Bertram
|  Monday, Jun 30, 2014  |  Updated 2:42 PM EDT
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Summer weddings flash by in a blur of "oohs" and "ahs," sartorial finery, inebriated speeches and intimate moments of familial love.

Amidst the joyous whirl the videographer and photographer go about their respective work, unobtrusively recording the event for posterity – from those rambling toasts to snapshots of rings being slipped on previously unadorned fingers.

"It’s their day not mine. It’s my job to be there without anybody noticing," says documentary filmmaker Doug Block. In a sense, to be "invisible." Two decades of witnessing and recording such events, or being a "fly on the wall," has given New York-based Block a unique perspective on the act of conscious coupling.

In "112 Weddings" (airing June 30 on HBO), Block  ("The Kids Grow Up") revisits a handful of couples who had previously enlisted his video services for their unions, and discovers the act of living "happily ever after" is just as complicated as orchestrating the most complex of wedding celebrations.

"It's an extraordinary gold mine for a documentary filmmaker to stumble upon. To be a kind of paid voyeur at a strangers wedding," says Block, 61, who began chronicling nuptials as way to supplement his filmmaking earnings. "The gamut of emotion they go through, and to be with two ordinary people on the most extraordinary day of their lives. It's unreal."

Block employs a cinéma vérité working style, and says his role is simply to "record the day ... And not just moments of the newlyweds together, but the things they are not always privy to. My job is kind of to be everywhere at once and capture the little quiet moments that make the day special."

That sentiment is echoed by Kate McElwee, a Boston-based still photographer who began shooting weddings in similar documentary style in 2007, and guesses the number of ceremonies she has worked to be somewhere in the 200s. Primarily a wedding photographer, McElwee, 35, describes her role on the day as chronicling "the little relationships between people, a nervous smile, emotional tears. Maybe the first time a dad sees his daughter all dressed up. Trying to capture that moment without having to set it up or make it fake."


Doug Block (r) Photo: Bob Krasner/HBO

While McElwee understands that posed, traditional images are extremely important, she believes it's the moment-based work that over time retains a higher resonance. "Posed images are really important for the couple over the initial few years. 20 years down the line they want to be able to look at an image and be able to say, 'Oh I totally remember when I was getting into my dress and was really nervous and one of my bridesmaids said something to me and it made me cry.'"

Block's film is honest, occasionally brutally so, as those captured moments of a couple's initial union are revisited, and then filtered through the years following that landmark event. The participants address issues affecting most married couples: the decision to have children, the health of those offspring, career highs and lows, infidelity, and for some, the decision to part ways permanently. 

Of those 112 ceremonies Block has recorded over the years, nine couples agreed to take part in the film. Two of the featured couples are divorced, or were in the process thereof during filming. Overall, Block says less than 10 percent of all his subjects have split.

That number bucks the current trend (the divorce rate in the United States is roughly 40-50 percent according to a 2011 survey by the CDC), but Block insists his video skill has no magical influence. "I didn’t ask people if they were happy, just if they were still together," he says.

"Happy weddings are a dime a dozen. Happy marriages are much more rare and therefore much more precious in the world," says Rabbi Jonathan Blake in "112 Weddings."

Olivia and Dennis, couple 49 in "112 Weddings," tell Block their wedding day "feels like a lifetime ago. Like a dream." After nine years of marriage, Dennis says there were, and are "happy moments." Olivia says they consciously address aspects of their relationship, both as a unit and individually, but believes through it all you have to maintain an ability to find the humor in life.

"We don’t really go into marriage having thought through what it is. We tend to conflate the wedding day with the marriage," says Block. "Our image of it is walking down that aisle looking the best we’ve ever looked. So that was a bit stunning to see how few people are prepared actually for what comes next. It confirmed my view of marriage, which is it takes a lot of work."


Anthony Abbatiello (l) and Chad Johnson (c) Photo: Kate McElwee

Though statistics show Americans are now marrying in fewer numbers compared to decades past, the business of betrothal is still big in the United States. In 2012 more than two million American couples flocked to obtain a marriage license, with the average wedding costing over $25,000, according to the Wedding Report (a research company that tracks and forecasts number of weddings, spending, and consumer trends for the wedding industry).

Following the legalization of same-sex marriage by the federal government in 2013, and with 20 states and the District of Columbia also now recognizing such unions, the wedding industry is getting a further injection of cash from a previously untapped market.

For their Provincetown-set wedding last year, New Yorkers Anthony P. Abbatiello and Chad Johnson enlisted McElwee to record the celebration, but chose not to employ a videographer. Though Johnson praised McElwee's "ability to capture emotional moments in a still frame," in retrospect the couple wish they had recorded the live-action as well.

"We would love to have had that bird's eye view of the ceremony and the speeches," says Abbatiello, whose initial decision was based on the comfort factor of guests who chose to cut loose on the dance floor during the reception – an arena McElwee cites as perfect for capturing the unfiltered joy of the day.

Though a wedding always, ultimately belongs to the couple tying the knot, it's the invisible guests who are treated, weekend after weekend, to ringside seats at one of life's greatest celebrations. Irregardless of what the future may hold.

"It’s the subject of a lifetime," says Block. "I’m in a very privileged position to tell these stories."

"It’s why I love my job so much: I’m surrounded by happy, joyous, excited people the entire time," adds McElwee. "And it really bolsters me. No matter how crappy a week I have had, I show up at the wedding and everyone is having the time of their lives and you absolutely get swept up in that."

(For the record: Block and his wife have been married for 28 years, and McElwee and her husband will celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary in July.)

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