Alan Berliner presented his latest film First Cousin Once Removed at the brand new Pacific Film Archive on Wednesday night. The film was preceded by a short lecture about his filmmaking process, as one in a series of lectures on documentary film, funded posthumously by filmmaker Les Blank.
An audience of UC Berkeley students and fans of the filmmaker listened to Berliner compare his process to putting together a puzzle. “Start from the pieces themselves,” he suggested. He described a puzzle that grows outward from associations, rather than from the edges in. As a result, an Alan Berliner film feels organic and complex, moving from psychological investigation to mystical questions regarding the human soul.
Like Berliner’s classic, Nobody’s Business, a story of his relationship with his father, First Cousin dives fearlessly into vulnerable territory as the camera watches his cousin, poet and retired Brown University professor Edwin Honig, descend into Alzheimer’s. The film unravels past hurts, as Berliner interviews estranged sons of the poet, and explores questions of self-identity from a life that arguably benefits from memory loss. It treats its subject with wit and carefulness, through a masterful editing style that incorporates home movies, found footage and various cinematic tropes. Text from Edwin’s poems appears between and upon images throughout.
While documenting the reality of Alzheimer’s Disease, Berliner personalizes it, describing his cousin’s version as a “poet’s Alzheimer’s”. As Edwin loses his vocabulary, his words still astonish with original beauty and wisdom. We are lead to infer an inner world that alternates between terror and peace.
For better or worse, Berliner fills that existential empty space for us. The yawning ‘nothingness’ of Edwin watching trees change outside his window gets repopulated with Berliner’s active ingredients. This conflict between living and dying, the cascading images and memories to describe the departure of such, reaches a head when Edwin finally scolds: “For one minute, one hour, one year, just let me be. I am, and that is that!”
Photo of Edwin Honig from First Cousin Once Removed