For someone as detail-obsessed, as meticulous as Alan Berliner, this has been a frustrating few weeks. He ushers a guest into his Tribeca loft, apologizing for what seems to him a state of chaos. One side of the immense space is devoted to a nearly floor-to-ceiling collection of boxes, crates, film canisters and what-have-you. The boiler in his building is being replaced and everything he had in storage in the basement is apparently now piled on his floor. As befits a self-confessed perfectionist, Berliner’s stacks of belongings are neater than most people’s ordinary living space. (My office should only look this “messy.”)
The neatness of his notion of chaos is revealing. Berliner is a brilliant filmmaker whose highly personal documentaries are built around the kind of split-second editing savvy than can only be accomplished by a man who is in complete control of his cinematic surroundings. His latest film, “First Cousin, Once Removed,” which debuts on HBO on Sept. 23, is a powerful rumination on memory and cognition that derives most of its unique forcefulness from his command of a dozen years worth of film.
“First Cousin” is a study of Berliner’s late cousin and mentor, Edwin Honig, a talented poet and brilliant translator and teacher, whose slow descent into Alzheimer’s is documented with great tenderness and impressive precision.
There are multiple ironies at work in the film, none of which are lost on Berliner. He was closer to his older cousin and found him more sympathetic than his hard-headed father Oscar, the subject of another of his family documentaries, “Nobody’s Business.” When Alan was seeking a role model and sounding board, it was to Edwin that he eventually turned, even though Honig was estranged from the rest of the family. But, like Oscar, Honig went on to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
“I look at the whole project [of the ‘family’ films] as a single body of work,” Berliner says. “Each film is a ‘Trojan horse,’ a piece of text that is open to myriad readings.”
In that respect, Berliner notes, the films are very much the product of his Jewish upbringing. Berliner, who turns 57 next month, grew up in Far Rockaway in a kosher home. His father’s father was “a very learned man, a ‘rabbi to rabbis,’” Berliner says with more than a touch of pride in his voice.
His entire body of film work reflects his Jewishness, both in its fascination with his own family and in its insistent posing of questions, most frequently about how we remember and memorialize the personal past.
“The films are consistent with the notion that the big questions of life beget more questions,” Berliner says. “Everything is subject to questioning, and different parts of the films ‘talk’ to one another, across time and space.”
This is a concept that Berliner finds Talmudic. One might be tempted to add that between “First Cousin” and “Nobody’s Business” there is a tension that echoes the famous battles between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, with Honig playing the quiet, attentive sage to Oscar’s bad-cop dispenser of unpleasant home truths. And like the two legendary rabbis, over time Edwin and Oscar come to resemble one another more, albeit tragically, as Alzheimer’s slowly eats at their intelligence and memory.
Intriguingly, each film is about a central figure that resists the truth-seeking aspect of Alan’s mission. In “Nobody’s Business” Oscar repeatedly and loudly dismisses the notion that his life could possibly be of interest to anyone outside of the family, and battles with his son over every tiny revelation from his past. By contrast, in “First Cousin” the problem isn’t that Edwin doesn’t want to cooperate, but that as Berliner filmed him over a dozen years, it became increasingly difficult for him to be much more than a passive presence in his own story.
“Details matter here,” Berliner says. “Details remembered and forgotten and details which need to be forgotten. It’s really a film about the power of forgetting. I knew that whether he could or couldn’t remember, the film had the possibility of being many more things than just a portrait of Edwin Honig.”
The unusual nature of their relationship, expressed subtly in the film’s title, makes the entire project work brilliantly. Honig is literally Berliner’s first cousin once removed, the first cousin of his mother. But at the same time, Honig is both primum inter pares, first among equals, among Berliner’s relatives, uniquely positioned as a professional and artistic guide and close friend, yet a bit distanced, out of touch with the rest of the family.
“My mother barely knew him when I sought him out when I was younger,” Berliner notes.
More than that, his illness is slowly “removing” him in another way, eroding his recollection of the past he and Alan share and even his memory of who Alan is.
“There’s something in my background that gives me the power and freedom to make these investigations,” Berliner says. “It is inherent in the warmth of my relationship with Edwin. I couldn’t have made this film about anyone else; he was close enough and far away enough.”
Ultimately, though, Berliner says with a sigh, “My films are really about how fragile it is to be human.”
And that, as one is reminded in the wake of Yom Kippur, is a very Jewish concept, too.
“First Cousin, Once Removed,” made for HBO Films by Alan Berliner, will be shown on Monday, Sept. 23, and several more times in the coming months on HBO. Check your local listings for times and dates. “The Alan Berliner Collection,” a five-disk boxed set that includes five of his feature films, including “Nobody’s Business,” is available from Kino Lorber at www.kinolorber.com.