Alan Berliner at the Pacific Film Archive

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

 

Miwa Matreyek at New Strands Festival

The first annual New Strands Festival took place this weekend over four days at A.C.T.’s renovated Strand Theater near Civic Center.  The festival brings in works-in-progress and invites innovative media work that crosses disciplines. I saw only one hour-long program:  The World Made Itself and Myth and Infrastructure, by Miwa Matreyek. The event was free and the audience small, but it stunned me enough to affirm this space offers Bay Area theater an exciting new platform for experimental artists.

Matreyek performs her animations by literally stepping into them, behind a film screen.  Her silhouette interacts with a flow of outrageously gorgeous imagery.  This graceful shadow dance depends on precision and timing, as it must match the movements on screen.  She uses a unique technique combining rear screen and frontal projection so her form passes between planes of the image.  She appears to stumble between buildings, or to reach an arm into a forest of trees.  The animations become three dimensional, popping out around her shadow.  At one moment, the shadow wraps its arms around a baby,  amid ruins of the World Trade Center, a scene that reasserts the theme of perpetual creation, yet a remembrance of the motherless children who survived.

At other times, her meandering form represents the Creatrix exploring all corners of Her world, who then swims bewilderedly through it.  She coaxes exquisite ferns into existence, liberates the amphibians, and measures millennia with a yardstick.  Cities sparkle with electric twinkling.  Yet both films question the future, and humanity’s out-of-proportion tendency to raze all that came before it, a victim of its own escalation and machinery.

The experience was a true find, exceeding expectations.  Check out her work here which includes glimpses of her performing behind the screen.

Winnipeg Handshake

Other Cinema, gnarly underground film enclave in the Mission District, welcomed a hardy troupe of Winnipeggers last Saturday night.  The array of 16 films showed a commitment to experimentation as well as to core materials: 16mm, super8, and film projectors kicking up corn dust.  Influences were drawn from a wide range of the cinema history spectrum: from docucomedy to structuralist video to rapid fire animation to silent film.  The highlight was Aaron Zeghers’ Holland, MAN, an expanded cinema showpiece featuring five finely choreographed projectors.  This moving mosaic of farmland, skies, and snowfields beautifully celebrated and mourned the retirement of the filmmaker’s family farm in Southern Manitoba.

 

Photo by Aaron Zeghers