RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
First Cousin Once Removed
Director: Alan Berliner, US, 2012, 78min
Known for making documentaries about his relatives, Alan Berliner’s focus on family is so important to his sense of art that he considers it a personal genre, one that he terms “family album.” But this cozy name is as ironic for him as it is embracing. His films hunt for clues in a mystery because, though “family” implies intimacy, the mark of a Berliner “family album” film is the elusiveness of intimacy. His films reveal the inaccessible part of “family” - the stories that aren’t adequately told, secrets that can’t be understood, emotions too unconsciously driven to be articulated and connections that are incomprehensible. He finds that it is a lack of understanding that holds many families together and that indirect, hidden narrative is mirrored in Berliner’s avant-garde structure, with its quick edit cuts, repeated images, and non sequitur or enacted scenes mixed with home movies, newsreel footage, private photographs, and a temporal narrative that flows back and forth in time.
His early films - Nobody’s Business (1996), about his father, and Intimate Stranger (1991), about his maternal grandfather - seem, with their use of commentary and enactments, to take a sang froid approach. But, from the outset, the films inflect an uneasy and emotional sense of being an outcast. The titles introduce the audience to the subtext of “rejection” apriori. They tell us, in their oxymorons, that the state of the “intimate” is a “stranger” and that the family world is “nobody’s business.” So it is strange, that it is in Berliner’s current work, First Cousin Once Removed, about his cousin, the writer, scholar, translator and poet Edwin Honig, in his last years of life, suffering from acute memory loss and the ravages of Alzheimer’s, a disease which severely severs the ill person from their past, their present, and the people they know, that Berliner seems to have arrived at a personal emotional space where intimacy actually does exist. The magnificence of First Cousin Once Removed is that Berliner creates a world in which “removed” is a condition - both in the form of Alzheimer’s disease and in the form of what exists in many families as a surrogate form of closeness. What the film examines is the nature of this “removed” closeness and accepts it as having its own closeness and its own sympathy.
Though he is an “insider” as a son or grandson, as a filmmaker Berliner takes an “outsider” stance by persistently questioning his subjects, over long periods of time, even if they are unwilling to open up (his father was notably reluctant). Berliner is critiqued for this trait as too intrusive and, as such, his work often is labeled “morally questionable.” This is debatable. He pries less into people’s lives per se than into how they communicate their lives - how they edit or dissemble, confront or deny, love directly or indirectly. What is revealed is not intimate information but a person’s expression of what intimacy is. In Nobody’s Business, Berliner’s father’s refusal to speak about the past is his communication. Berliner doesn’t better understand his father, even though he may wish to, at the film’s end but what he does find is his father’s withdrawal. His film is about the nature of their disconnection and the nature of disconnection.
Berliner’s relationship with Honig is quite different than those in his previous films. Honig had been his lifelong mentor and, seemingly, the bond between them was strong. In First Cousin Once Removed, Berliner films Honig in his home-like nursing facility in Rhode Island, during some twenty visits, over five years. He came, as he put it, “once a season,” to Honig’s suite of rooms with windows overlooking a grove of trees and walls lined with books and pictures. Honig is very distracted and has difficulty recognizing people or speaking even a few words. It’s impossible to know how many attempts it took to elicit a simple response. Nevertheless, even under these constraints, Berliner felt a bond with Honig. In interview, he described these twenty visits as a “duet” and First Cousin Once Removed sings that “duet” using Berliner’s usual cinematic pattern. The film’s kaleidoscopic structure shows Honig’s aging up to Honig’s death, moving back and forth in time, inter-cut into split second montages, out of sync or repeated sequences, as well as images of family photographs and interviews with Honig’s sister, his ex wife, his sons, and his friends. Throughout the film, Honig’s face is prominent, often shot in close up. It visibly changes from that of an old man, with recognizable expressions of cheer, anger, curiosity, contemplation, fear and confusion, to one of a very old man about to die, whose eyes and cheeks are sunken, and who has an air of a man done with life and leaving it. Other than that, the true starkness of Alzheimer’s illness, or any aging disintegration, is not shown. Honig is always clean, comfortable and receptive, whether calmly or not. Berliner’s focus is on the questions and answers.
Initially, Berliner presents Honig’s life as a success. A famous man, his literary accolades were many. He taught at Harvard University and Brown University, and he was knighted in Portugal and Spain for his translations. His twenty-three year happy, childless marriage ended with his wife’s death and it was followed by his marriage, in the 1960s, to a young, literary woman with whom he adopted two babies. But in these new relationships, another side of Honig appeared. He abused his second wife and especially abused his sons whom he treated so viciously that they cut off all ties to him as adults. It’s revealed that Honig’s endured a violent childhood. His three year old brother was killed by a car when he ran across the street following Honig who was then only five. The horror of this accident was compounded by his father’s behavior, who blamed Honig and beat him repeatedly for his brother’s death. Honig never recovered from his grief and his father’s treatment seems to have re-emerged in Honig’s own father-son relation. It also seems that Honig was able to handle a paternal role, “once removed,” with Berliner. Honig’s son confirmed this as, visibly fraught, he spoke of his empty, frightening life with his father, adding that Berliner was someone of whom Honig was “proud.”
First Cousin Once Removed makes no attempt to analyze these losses and attachments but it does create a formally driven commentary on them. The introduction of the two sons, the most disrupted relationships in Honig’s life, is the sole place in the film where the form is jarred. The film suddenly has a different pace. It becomes a narrative grounded in time. The two sons are filmed in their homes and speak to the camera about their experiences and one comes, with his wife, to visit his father who does not recognize him. These scenes are the least edited by Berliner and, as such, they appear more conventionally “documentary-like.” Out of sync with the film’s look and timing, these parts act as a discord in the entire film, as if Berliner can’t make a place for Honig’s uncontrolled paternal cruelty and can’t find a way to fit “son” into Honig’s story, much as Honig could not fit his sons into his own life.
In his illness, Honig, though rarely able to speak, does show profound reactions to others and to his surroundings. In his short sentences, he displays a perception of a past that seems to have its own re-configuration, almost as if re-vitalized. Berliner poses simple questions to Honig, such as – “What do you remember about your mother?” - while showing a photograph. Honig often isn’t able to recall but, at times, after a while, is able to say a few words. What begins to emerge, in these silences, minimal talk, and unusually cold or warm connections, is a deeply human portrait, a snap shot of a man in time.
One example is in his recollection of his paternal grandmother to whom he was sent to live after his brother’s death. Berliner shows him a picture of her face and asks him if he knows her. Honig recognizes her readily and says he loved her very much. His next words are: “When I see her cheeks, I know who I am.” This could be construed as nonsense but it could also be construed as a child’s feelings. His grandmother’s presence is still soothing to him, even in his illness and old age. His closeness to her is sensual, as it would be to a child. Her “cheeks” make him feel his own sense of self. This tactilely articulated memory still gives him a sense of identity, as her cheeks, a real part of her motherly presence, which he as a child kissed or leaned his face against, once did. Conversely, when Berliner asks him to recall his brother’s death, the trauma of the event and Honig’s father’s violence comes through. Honig is visibly distressed and he reverts to raspy, repetitive moaning and can’t form words.
Honig’s stress, on having this memory provoked, is the kind of thing that has induced criticism, of acting unethically, of Berliner. ButFirst Cousin Once Removed is less a film that is “morally questionable” than one that is unquestionably about morals. Morals are constructed attitudes on the rightness and wrongness of intense social ties and the manner in which they are played out in society. What their manifestation is in families and what can and cannot be said about those ties or defined as “moral” is, at its deepest level, exactly what Berliner is looking at. That is, his films are looking at what ties us together - without making a conclusion. Berliner doesn’t answer questions in his “family album” films. He only poses them - by entering that “family” space for what it is - inexplicable, fluid, indefinable, with its own world of relations.
This is a courageous and bleak but beautiful film that is too clean and too messy at once. It attempts to show disconnection as real, ever present, harmful, and true to a life but, most amazingly, First Cousin Once Removed shows that disconnection has a bond within it.