A Life’s Work in Progress: An Interview with Alan Berliner
by Max Weinstein
The intensely personal nature of Alan Berliner’s work suggests a slew of subcategories to his title of “filmmaker” –personal nonfiction; biographical; autobiographical; experimental documentary; and essayistic. In interviews past, the multihyphenate has attributed others’ inability to categorize him to his perpetual aesthetic restlessness, an internalized double-edged sword that informs the pacing and methodology of his malleable shooting and cutting schemes. Berliner’s work extends an open invitation to outsiders to access his very particular worldview, one that, over the course of several decades, has woven the broad themes of family, philosophy, psychology, religion, genealogy, and individual identity. “You can call that taking the personal and making it universal, but they both have to do with transformation; with using my own life—the people, the experiences, my relationships—as a laboratory in which I encourage viewers to think about their own” he says. “The audience can’t ever think that my motivation is to get revenge on someone, or that I’m driven by sentimentality, or hagiographic pride. If they don’t trust me, they won’t be willing to engage with my film as a window, or better yet, as a mirror, to those very same issues in their own lives.”
In Berliner’s negotiation of the fine line between the personal and the professional, technology—both old and new—is paramount. His first film, The Family Album (1988), a study of the American family as told through repurposed, found anonymous home-movie footage from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, relies entirely upon the camera’s ability to tell the stories of people he otherwise doesn’t know. His next film, Intimate Stranger (1991), examines the life and legacy of his maternal grandfather, Joseph Cassuto, through the testimonies of his immediate family, and is guided by the propulsive sounds of his grandfather’s old manual typewriter. By the time he puts himself into the equation of his films, as the instigator of one long, protracted conversation with his father, Oscar, in Nobody’s Business (1996), the typewriter in Berliner’s work has become a multifarious and stylistic mainstay. In The Sweetest Sound (2001), a film that meditates on the meaning of names, he uses the computer’s access to the budding information superhighway as a mediating agent just as much as the traditional tools of filmmaking, in order to search the world over for every person who shares his name. Wide Awake(2006), an explorative account of his struggle--and love affair—with insomnia, takes viewers on a tour throughhis studio, in which his Macbook hums incessantly in the middle of the floor, surrounded by towering shelves of archival footage, and drawer upon drawer of sound clips made readily available for inclusion in whatever next work he might be conjuring up.
Berliner is at once fascinated and unnerved by technology. While his equipment enables him to preserve and make meaning of the myriad film and video fragments of his life, he acknowledges how easily any piece of footage can become outdated with age, in turn leading to its abandonment, or worse yet, its disappearance. The same can be said of memories—around which Berliner’s latest film, First Cousin Once Removed, revolves. The documentary profiles Edwin Honig—Berliner’s cousin, friend, and former mentor—as he copes with Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss. When asked about taking on this topic, Berliner says, “One of the underlying motivations for the film is that I’m secretly worried about losing my own memory one day.” Cumulatively, his work, he adds, has always been about “what it means to remember, and to be remembered.”
How will Berliner be remembered? It’s a question he’s less interested in knowing how to answer than he is in providing clues for others to solve for themselves. But to that question, an investigation of his formal hybridity invites a number of plausible and equally valid responses. That Berliner adamantly rejects an exclusive relationship with any one of the labels he’s been given renders each as important to understanding his canon as the last. The title of his new film, First Cousin Once Removed, evokes the crucial tension created by someone or something that is profoundly close and familiar, and yet at the same time, detached and intangible—for some, the very definition of “family” itself. The film is the third portrait of an older male relative in Berliner’s oeuvre, all of which navigate the fluid boundaries between past, present, and future; between the ways in which the memories of a life once lived can still have a profound impact on those left behind. In all of Berliner’s films the power of memory is always in the air, whether his subjects are around to remember (his grandfather wasn’t), don’t want to remember (his father didn’t), or in the case of his cousin Edwin, who simply can’t remember.
First Cousin Once Removed has been screened as a work in progress for film students in the United States and Israel before being finished and debuted at the 2012 New York Film Festival.
Cineaste: Since its inception, you've had multiple titles for your new film, before finally arriving at First Cousin Once Removed. How do you know when a title feels final?
Alan Berliner: Some titles lasted a day or two, some lasted a month or more. Despite the fact that I took the time and effort to create unique title sequences for all of them, titles like Life Sentences and Disappearing Ink came and went very quickly. In the case of these two titles, for instance, I thought that each of them, in its own way, had the benefit of being poetically associated with the idea of memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, and at the same time were “literary” in feeling and allusion, both appropriate to a film about “a poet’s Alzheimer’s.” Of course, after living with each of them for a few days, I recognized that they just weren’t right. I remember waking up one morning realizing that, at first glance, a film called Life Sentences would make most people think of prison, or some horrific crime, which I wasn’t comfortable with, despite the fact that Alzheimer’s disease is indeed a kind of “life sentence.” I still think it’s a nice title—just not for this film.
Other titles like A Tree Without Leaves, Man Without A Past, and Once Upon A Past were all much safer titles, but, in the end, either too direct or too overdetermined. I was giving the audience too much information; not letting them make their own connections and associations. First Cousin Once Removed was an early working title that hung around for six months, was put aside for six months, and then came back again near the end. It was almost as if the film had to shed that title, reinvent itself for a while, and then try it on again before I could finally understand that it was the right fit. After getting lost in “title wilderness” for a while—which is not a fun place to be—I believe it’s clearly the best title for the film.
Cineaste: And how about when the film feels final? Narratively, structurally, do you ever experience a sense of "completion"?
Berliner: In many ways I never do get a final sense of closure. I simply run out of time. In the case of First Cousin Once Removed, the deadline of the New York Film Festival screening became the horizon towards which my postproduction process was directed. If you’re asking me whether I still think there are things in my film that can be made better if I had a little more time, even one more day, the answer is yes. And that’s been true for every film I’ve ever made. Letting go of a film is always particularly hard for me. Besides being a recidivist perfectionist, I’m someone who likes to watch my film over and over again, always looking for things that can be made better. I’m a big believer in process, in giving the film time to evolve and change slowly over time right up to and including the very end. Even in postproduction—at the on-line and at the sound mix—I’m still looking for ways of embellishing, enhancing, and adding layers of depth to the film.
Cineaste: Like your typewriter motif, which draws attention to the technological aspects of cinema. It’s a constant in your films. There are many instances in which your focus is shifted to the technology and process of filmmaking—the film apparatus, the camera, and other types of machinery. Where does that come from for you?
Berliner: I try to do things that allow me to use the process, the methodology, and the mode of storytelling as metaphors in each film I make. In the case of Intimate Stranger, my grandfather died in the middle of writing his autobiography, and I had inherited his old manual typewriter, the tool of both his personal writing project and his business activities. The idea of transposing the sound and image motifs of that typewriter—the click-clack of the keys, the bell that rings as you approach the end of each line, etc., as structuring and storytelling devices for the film, allowed me to activate the screen as a kind of canvas, a blank page, upon which I as filmmaker, as editor, am in effect, completing his unfinished story. There are a lot of interesting implications to that…
Cineaste: Like rhythm…
Berliner: Musicality, yes: ten years later I transposed the sounds and rhythms of the typewriter into those associated with the computer keyboard in The Sweetest Sound (2001). I even used the now obsolete sound of dial-up Internet. The Sweetest Sound was made well before there was this thing called Google, so most of my searches for anyone, anywhere in the world, who shared my name were made mostly by searching through on-line telephone directories, and proprietary databases of names and addresses on DV-ROMS. I use the sounds of a computer, much like I once used the sound of the typewriter, only in this case to tell a story that could only be told and made in the computer era. And now, here I am, in First Cousin Once Removed, yet again, a decade later, coming back to my old friend the manual typewriter…
Cineaste: The one that originated in Intimate Stranger.
Berliner: Yes, but this time with a completely different aesthetic and stylistic emphasis. My approach now is much simpler. The rhythms are more pronounced, more staccato. My cousin Edwin was a poet and a translator who wrote on his little green, manual typewriter, one keystroke at a time. I wanted to be true to that. Now that I think about it, the two films would make a really interesting double feature one day. In fact, my grandfather was Edwin Honig’s uncle!
Cineaste: Do you feel obligated to preserve the fragments of family history your subjects might not otherwise care about?
Berliner: Each one of these films—Intimate Stranger, Nobody’s Business, and First Cousin Once Removed—is a portrait, a form of biography. I’m very interested in the set of metaquestions that come with the territory of looking back at a life lived. Even in the case of my grandfather, I realized that a portrait of someone who’s no longer with us is really about the lives of the people they left behind. It’s about those who inherit a legacy, those who have to live with the implications of who their loved one was, and what they did, or didn’t do.
It’s funny, one of the first things I showed Edwin when I went to visit him was a video cassette of Intimate Stranger that I saw on his bookshelf, a VHS tape I’d given him more than fifteen years earlier. It was a powerful way of showing him that we’d known one another before and that we were indeed related. I remember handing it to him, saying, “You see? You have a film of mine. Where do you think you got this? Who do you think gave this to you?” And he would read the front cover, “Intimate Stranger, a film by Alan…” and then look at me with a smile, a hint of recognition. Then I would remind him, “You see this man? He was your uncle!” And I would once again try to explain the connection, to refresh his memory. That’s something people often do with Alzheimer’s patients. You always think this could be the day when you might somehow light the fire again. The day when you might be able to reawaken them to some part of their identity, some remaining parts of themselves—by showing them a picture, a letter, an object, even by serving them their favorite chocolate cake. There were days when Edwin was barely interested in talking, but then suddenly, often after dinner, he’d not only be talking, but he’d be completely lucid. There were times when he might only remember the outline of something that happened in his past, and I’d try to fill in the blank spaces for him. On occasion, for a brief flicker of time, there was a sense that I had given Edwin a momentary feeling of something close to a “memory,” a resonant reconnection to his past, even if it was only fleeting. I think those people who care for Alzheimer’s patients know the allure, the frustrations, the despair, but also the deep satisfaction of trying to bring someone back to a part of themselves.
Cineaste: In Nobody’s Business, you’re just as much an interventionist in your father’s life, trying to get him to remember, to recollect. Consistently with the subjects you choose to be at the center of your films, there’s a resistance to be the subject, to be an interviewee. Is that something you’re conscious of when you begin “casting?”
Berliner: My cast of characters is all around me. In Nobody’s Business I learned that my father had three basic modes of approaching his life: “Don’t know,” “Don’t remember,” “Don’t care.” It was very hard to determine which mode, or combination of modes, was in play at any point in our conversation. Part of what gives the film its power is my father’s resistance, the way he pushes back at me and challenges my questions every chance he gets. His indifference to sharing, learning, or even speculating about his own life story is so consistent throughout the film that it allows the audience to understand that he’s not posing, that his humility and indifference—however strange—is quite genuine. In that tension, in that friction, there’s a strange vitality. It puts the audience in a position of making judgments, almost as if they’re on a jury, or are the referees in a debate. Who do I agree with: the father who says, “I’m not going to answer the question”? Or the son who responds, “I have the right to ask!” The father, who says, “It’s my life, and I don’t have to tell you anything”? Or the son who needs to know because, “When I ask about you, I’m also asking about me; because your family history is also myfamily history?” That kind of generational conflict is not easily resolved. In the case of my film aboutEdwin, there’s really only one applicable mode—when Edwin says he doesn’t remember something, he really doesn’t remember. And what’s evoked from that is a series of questions: “How important is that?” How does memory function in our lives? What role does it have in the way we learn from the past, can anticipate and imagine a future, and are able to savor the present as a discrete moment in the fluid continuum of time. Every time Edwin doesn’t remember something, it calls into question the very essence of how memory functions in all of our lives.
Cineaste: Is First Cousin Once Removed the film, in this trajectory of films you’ve made, “about memory,” or is it more of an expansion of films that have been about memory all along?
Berliner: I think that all the films I’ve made thus far have been about memory and identity, family, relationships, love, and finding strategies to explore these themes in the most cinematic way possible. This film is obviously more focused on memory than any of them, but it also continues an ongoing evolution in my work. I suppose if I ever find myself losing my own memory one day, and have the self-awareness and wherewithal to chronicle the process in first person, that would be the end of the tunnel for me—a true autobiography, the closest I could ever come to the heart and the mind of the matter. But, I like the fact that all of my films navigate through a related set of issues, subjects, and themes, and if seen in context, talk to one another in a variety of ways. I’ve come to see all of it as part of a lifelong project, and as long as I live, and have the privilege of making films, I hope to keep building on it, adding to it, and growing through it.
Cineaste: Do you have a sense of trajectory about where you started in relation to where you are now, and how you’ve expanded upon those recurring themes?
Berliner: It’s not exactly a conscious thing, but at a certain point I started to think about how the films I’ve made function as a body of work. I began to wonder where I’d taken myself through this journey of filmmaking. What I’ve learned about my passions, my obsessions, my needs, my affinities, my process and my role as a filmmaker. And then there’s the critical mass of other people’s responses to and understanding of what I’ve done. At some point along the way, my work started to be described in certain ways: personal nonfiction; biographical; autobiographical; experimental documentary; essayistic. A lot of adjectives got thrown at me, none of which really matter, of course. Whatever I was doing, whatever I am doing, I just know that it’s because I’ve been following the intertwined trajectories of my heart, my fascination, and my need.
When I was in my early twenties, making films about “people” was very far from what I identified with, and how I understood myself as a filmmaker. I tended much more towards visual abstraction and nonlinear montage, a crucial part of me that still finds its way into every film I make. In many ways, The Family Album, completed in 1986, was the turning point, the film that changed the way I made films. There I was, doing what I loved to do—making an abstract collage film out of a large collection of old anonymous 16mm home movies—only this time, the project was inextricably associated with very definitive thematic and humanistic content, “the family.” I remember doing postscreening Q&As with various audiences who wanted to talk with me about life, the institution of the family, about socialization, aging, about what to do with and how to preserve orphaned home movies, among many other things. I’m not sure what watching more home movies than anyone else on Earth over a five-year period qualifies you for, but suddenly, it was as if I had become an expert on “the family,” and each screening was an opportunity for me to deliver a lecture on the subject.
Of course, I wasn’t anywhere close to being an expert on the family. How can there possibly be such a thing? But all of those conversations somehow made a big impression on me. Inevitably I started to think that if I was going to make films that speak to issues around the subject of family, that the next time out I should make sure I had a real personal stake in it. That while you can’t be an expert on “the family,” you might come close to being an expert on your own family. And so it wasn’t all that much of a stretch for me to go to a place and a subject that I always sensed was waiting for me, but never quite knew or understood fully—Joseph Cassuto, my maternal grandfather. All of his papers, hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of correspondence, photographs, and documents, which he had saved across his lifetime, had been boxed up and stored in the deep dark recesses of my uncle’s office. All of which were poised to be the raw material for my next film. And that’s how and why I decided to become the family historian, anthropologist, and archaeologist, by carefully and lovingly excavating the fifteen dusty and moldy boxes that contained the paper trail of my grandfather’s life. No one else in my family was even remotely interested. And I remember being incredibly magnetized and excited by the idea of opening them after all those years, almost as if I was on an archaeological dig, and they were some kind of buried treasure.
Ironically, when I was a young boy, maybe ten years old, I’d helped him organize many of the documents I was to suddenly uncover. I even found papers that were labeled and numbered in my own childish handwriting. I remember we used to visit my grandparents’ house almost every Sunday, and he would sometimes hand me a ten-dollar bill after a full afternoon of working with him in his basement office.
Cineaste: The magnetism you’re describing seems to also be about becoming more and more participatory, not only as filmmaker, but as a self-inserted persona.
Berliner: Right. I wanted to make something in which I had a deeper, more profound stake, both throughout the process and in the film I ended up making. That’s difficult and quite scary, because it raised the level of risk, and the level of expectation. At the time, after I finished Nobody’s Business, everyone was saying, “First he did the grandfather, and then he did the father. So what’s next? Of course! He’s should make a film about himself! Where else is there to go?” It’s almost as if the arc of my work had become a kind of zoom—a zooming in, a zooming in towards the self. So when I started thinking about my next film, what was to become The Sweetest Sound, a film about “names,” centered around a dinner invitation I made to all the Alan Berliners in the world, I thought, ‘I guess this will be the film about me.’”
At the same time, I was getting a little tired of all the drama and introspection that came with making personal films. I didn’t want to talk about my family, or myself all the time anymore. I wanted to get out of the house and go outside for a while. And so when I began making The Sweetest Sound, I hoped that by including an extremely wide array of name stories, naming traditions—based on religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.—in the film, that I would be freed of having to make it a film entirely about me and my name. Alas, it didn’t take me very long to realize that while one could make a fascinating and informative survey film about names by including lots and lots of them, that the real way to get to a deeper understanding of how names function in our lives, and after our deaths, was by exploring one name, as thoroughly as possible. By freezing it. Drying it. Melting it. Burning it. Soaking it. Vaporizing it. Tearing at it. Dissecting it. Stretching it. Twisting it. [Pauses] That’s ten. I’ll go for five more. Cooking it. Boiling it. Cutting it into little pieces. Chewing it. And then spitting it out again whole…
Cineaste: In The Sweetest Sound, you assert that the one thing you can’t do with a name is share it. You’re angry about having to share your name, and make it clear in your voice-over narration that you’re envious of the men you invite to dinner. The whole exercise of the film is rooted in a kind of narcissism, a drive to elevate above the other men at the dinner table who share a piece of your identity.
Berliner: Everything I do with, and say about the other Alan Berliners is a way of exploring the ways in which authenticity, individuality, and identity are inextricably wrapped inside of our names. In retrospect, that was the most challenging film I’ve ever attempted. If I’d thought about what I was getting into before I set out to make it, I probably never would have begun. It’s really difficult to spend an entire hour focusing so intensely on your own name. In many ways, ironically, you have to be ego-less to actually pull it off.
Cineaste: You just arrived back from Israel.
Berliner: Two weeks ago.
Cineaste: How did you arrange a screening of your film there?
Berliner: The organizers of an annual conference of Israeli independent documentary filmmakers asked me if I would be willing to be one of their special guests this year, and present a retrospective of my films, in addition to conducting a master class. Because I was in the throes of editing First Cousin Once Removed, I thought it would be interesting and valuable to show it as a work in progress—the film was called Man Without A Past at the time—and they thought it was a great idea.
Cineaste: Jewishness is one fragment of identity that’s addressed in any film into which you’re self-inserted. In a place like Israel, there’s a fine line between cultural Jewishness and religious Jewishness. Is it more of a cultural thing, for you, or religious?
Berliner: Religion and culture are very much interconnected, and I’m certainly what would be described as a “secular” Jew. But I’d like to share something really interesting that happened in Israel that spans the bridge between the two and also relates to family. An announcement about my visit was published in a few of the newspapers there and two people, who had seen Nobody’s Business on television years before, wrote to the organizers of the conference to say that they believed we were cousins, and that they would like to meet me. And so two brothers—one in his sixties, one in his early seventies—drove three hours from northern Israel to Ein Gedi, the desert location of the conference, carrying an envelope containing photographs of their mother and grandfather to prove their point. I had come prepared for our meeting with a few photographs and a couple of letters written to my father’s father, Benjamin, from his family in Poland and Russia, shortly after his arrival in New York City. After comparing notes, names, dates, and studying the faces of our mutual ancestors, we were able to confirm that their grandfather was indeed my grandfather’s brother. And so I had the chance to meet two new first cousins, once removed.
In Nobody’s Business, there’s a section in which I go to Treblinka, and then ask my father if he ever thought about any of his unknown relatives who might have died in the Holocaust. I thought it was a really important, though quite dangerous question to ask him, because if he remained cynically indifferent or dismissive in his answer, the audience might lose sympathy for him. His response that he didn’t believe we’d had any relatives who died in the Holocaust sounded a bit unreasonable. To which I then declared that I felt it was, “A certainty!” He then continues, becoming a bit more sympathetic to the question by saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Well, as it turned out, the brothers who came to visit me, the daughter of my grandfather’s brother (I’m sorry for all of this complicated tongue-twisting genealogy)—was the only one of her four siblings who made it out of Poland alive, and settled in Israel. The others were completely wiped out in the Holocaust. The speculation I’d made in my film about other Berliner family members who perished in the Holocaust was true, and there they were, two long-lost distant cousins to tell me about it. During one of my screenings at the conference, I publicly introduced them to the audience, and then showed the section of Nobody’s Business I just described. It was very moving.
Cineaste: At one time, one of the candidates for the title of First Cousin Once Removed was God Is My Eraser.
Berliner: Yeah, God Is My Eraser is the title of a short poem by Edwin that I seriously considered for a short while, though I thought it was very risky. It didn’t take me very long to understand that if you put the word “God” in a title, any title, that many people, for better or worse are going to interpret it religiously, not culturally, and certainly not in the secular way that Edwin intended it.
Cineaste: Or it might create the expectation that the film will speak “about” religion in some way.
Berliner: Yes. Or God! Listen, the fact is, when you lose your memory, there are only a few “people” or “places” you might go to place blame. God would certainly be one of them.
Cineaste: [Laughs] Talk a little bit about humor, and how it’s deployed throughout your work. It’s a staple of just about every film in which you deal with your immediate family.
Berliner: Humor is a wonderfully complicated thing. Audiences have taught me over the years that there are different kinds of humor: the nervous laughter, the knowing laughter, the group giggle, the group guffaw, and the group smile, among many others subtle layers of communal response. Laughter is an audience’s way of telling you that they “get it,” that they’re playfully engaged with the film and are open to discovery. I don’t go out of my way to put humor into the films. To be honest, I’m sometimes quite surprised by what audiences think is funny. In the end, I want all of my films to put a smile both on the face and in the back of the mind of the viewer. A mind that’s smiling is a mind attuned, ready to be surprised, attentive and receptive, and that’s where I want the audience—willing to play with me, to follow my flow of thought, to trust me.
I’m more interested in humor coming out of irony than “jokes” per se. When I was making Nobody’s Business, I asked my father if he knew any jokes. He told me he knew some salesman jokes, and then began telling me this little story: “A man goes to an artist and says, ‘I want to have a picture made.’ The artist says, ‘Well, there are two kinds of pictures—a portrait and a landscape.’ The man says, ‘Which is cheaper?’ The artist says, ‘The landscape.’ So the man says, ‘Well, can you make a landscape of me?’” For the record, I had never heard my father even use the word art or artist in a sentence before. As far as I know, he’d never even been to a museum, at least not with me. Where he got that joke from, I have no idea. When he said it… [Laughs] I was a bit dumbfounded, but I knew he had given me something special to work with. And I decided to use that little “joke” at the beginning of the film as a kind of prologue, and it almost always gets a gentle laugh, the kind of knowing chuckle that gets the film off on a good note.
Cineaste: In context, he’s a man whose entire reserve of energy is devoted to resisting having any kind of portrait of him made at all, and who believes that, ultimately, a portrait isn’t worth anything.
Berliner: Earlier in the film, when I show my father a photograph of his grandfather, I say, “What do you think about the way he looks?” And he responds, “He looks like an old Jew, what do you want me to say?” Or then, when I show him a picture of his grandmother, he says rather incredulously, “What do you want me to tell you that I love them? They could be taken out of a storybook. I don’t know them. I don’t give a shit about them.”
Cineaste: [Laughs] You allude to your father, in the context of the boxing motif in Nobody’s Business, as the champion. You juxtapose audio, with the end-credit titles, of your father still resisting any advance from you. It’s hilarious, those two things in tension with one another—his knee-jerk reaction to filmmaking, and then the validation of the film as it’s finished, thanking who’s involved, and who funded the project. Is that juxtaposition a way of legitimating yourself or your profession to him?
Berliner: The kind of laughter that occurs over the end credits of Nobody’s Business is all about irony. The audience understands what my father doesn’t: that had I been something other than what I am—a lawyer, an accountant, or an engineer, as he suggests—that this film wouldn’t even exist! For all of his so-called “street” intelligence, and he was a very intelligent man, my father never “got” most of the ironies that pervade the film. Later in the credits, I put the list of funders—Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts—and he tells me that it all means nothing, that, “All you want is to get something for nothing. You’re living on handouts.” That’s an amazingly honest statement from a father to his son, and I include it in the service of being honest and forthright about our relationship, our generational differences, and our different set of values. I hope audiences can see themselves and their own relationships revealed in the swirl of those ironies.
Cineaste: Moving beyond generational differences, you also frame the process of filmmaking as a confrontation with mortality. Like First Cousin Once Removed’s structure, it becomes a journey from life to death.
Berliner: One way or another, all of my films end up in the cemetery. The Family Album ends with images of elderly people and allusions to growing old and dying; the final shots of Intimate Stranger are of my maternal grandparents’ tombstones. I filmed my father standing over the very spot where he would one day be buried at the cemetery inNobody’s Business. The Sweetest Sound also ends in the cemetery, (“name heaven”), where I shoot my paternal grandparents’ gravesite. Even Wide Awake ends with a reference to mortality, that I’ll have “more time to sleep after I die.”
First Cousin Once Removed is also obviously very much about aging, about mortality and the fragility of being human. Edwin grows frailer and more dependent upon others right in front of our eyes. When I think about the various film portraits I’ve made, I'd like to believe that I’ve created a deeper sense of the legacies left behind by grandfather, my father, and now by Edwin. Interestingly, there’s no funeral, no cemetery, no tombstone and no memorial service in this film, despite the fact that I shot all of them. At the end of the film I simply cut to a shot of Edwin's living room—the room in which he spent most of the last years of his life—this time with his ever-present chair now empty, but still facing the large picture window that frames a group of trees rustling with leaves, and the sound of birds chirping in the background. Edwin’s presence through his absence is the final shot of the film.
Cineaste: “Presence through absence” is the essence of a legacy. How do you suspect legacies will be preserved and represented in the current technological climate?
Berliner: We live in a time when our talking telephone is also our home-movie camera. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future to the millions upon millions of digital files of family home video and still images being generated so easily and so casually today? The documentation of our lives has become incredibly affordable, easy to make, and easy to look at, but at the same time it's also extremely easy to lose, to erase, to misplace, to mislabel, and to lose track of.
Once upon a time I bought forty hours of anonymous 16mm home movies from an antique collector who had purchased them over the years at flea markets and estate sales; today someone might buy or find a used computer, an old camera memory card, a used cell phone, a recycled flash-drive or a hard drive containing hours and hours of video, or countless photos, long forgotten by the family that took them. Despite the technological differences, in the end it’s all the same, someone's family history has been erased, has been forgotten, orphaned.
Cineaste: There’s a bunch of home movies I took years ago on a family trip to London. I was trying to find that footage on an old, clear blue iMac. It’s gone now.
Berliner: Be on the lookout. It might turn up in someone's film one day!
Max Weinstein is a writer and film critic based in New Jersey; he is the Web Editor of Diabolique, a bimonthly publication focusing on critical perspectives of the horror genre, and has written for Boxoffice and Fangoria.
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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1