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Alan Berliner’s ‘First Cousin Once Removed’

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An image from First Cousin Once Removed, a documentary by Alan Berliner.

I just stepped out of a screening of First Cousin Once Removed, a film that’s showing at the New York Film Festival next week. I figure I’d better write about it now, because I don’t want to forget it. That’s a joke — the film, directed by Alan Berliner (Wide Awake, Nobody’s Business, The Sweetest Sound), is about his relation, Edward Honig, who suffers from Alzheimer’s — but it’s laced with sincerity, because the documentary is deeply affecting, and it hit home for me in an immediate, emotional way that I want to relay here.

That in itself — the delicate, fleeting nature of communicating a feeling — is one of the many subjects of Berliner’s film, which ought to resonate in a deeply personal way to anyone who has struggled to remember a lost love, a precious memory, or who has had a family member who experienced dementia in any way. In other words, the film could speak to just about anyone.

And yet, that is not to say that the film is for everyone. It isn’t pretty. It’s a discomfiting film, for many of the obvious reasons. Looking at infirmity in a close up — nose hairs, stained sweaters and all — is not pretty. And tracing the vicissitudes of dementia in poetic fashion (Honig was a poet, translator of poets and longtime professor at Brown University) requires a fair amount of patience from an audience. But I think that Berliner, who clearly aspired to creating a sort of visual poetry in First Cousin, achieves it.

Berliner is known for making personal, reflective films that deconstruct everything from his family name to his inability to sleep at night. He’s used to digging deep into his psyche, and, here, he tries to dissect the deteriorating mind of his cousin.

Berliner asks Honig, “Who are you, anyway? What’s it like to be you?”

These are obviously very existential questions, and when you ask a poet who’s losing his mind, then you’re going to go down a rabbit hole. As Berliner contemplates a mind that is going blank, he tells Honig’s personal history, which is also far from a walk in the park. There’s been tragedy inflicted upon and by Honig, and Berliner doesn’t shy away from either.

After the screening, Berliner came on stage and spoke about how, with the Baby Boom generation having just turned 65 last year, there will be an “avalanche of memory loss heading our way.”

I’m not sure how literal he was being, but I don’t think this film is going to be the Inconvenient Truth of senility. But it will be deeply meaningful for a lot of people who are willing to look at the inevitably sad end of it all. HBO is releasing the film in late 2013, but tickets are still available for purchase for next week’s NYFF screenings.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • kevin

    I disagree. I just saw the movie at the Montclair Film Festival and was very disappointed. I didn’t think it was good documentary film making and I thought he blew an opportunity to take a story and make a good movie from it. First, there was no thread running through it. Rather, it was a series of lightweight thoughts running one after the other. There was non-sensical use of stock footage of film from other sources thrown in as if to make some profound point but was simply distracting and meaningless. Honig was a poet whose writings could have been used to frame sections and transitions in the movie but was not used that way. Rather, the words were typed on screen with background typing sound effects worthy of a first time documentary movie maker submitting a project to his/her professor in a sophomore film making course. Lastly, some of the more notable quotes came in what looked like incredibly edited moments using answers to questions posed in some other context to make some emotional point in an unrelated scene. Basically, Berliner had a relationship with his uncle when no other family member could because they recognized what a bastard he was (for whatever reason). He could have made the basis of the movie that Honig led a life that was full of objective success (publishing, academic appointments, etc) but devoid of any real satisfying emotional relationships and that Alzheimers allowed him to forget that. For some people, that might be the blessing of Alzheimers. That would have been a good documentary. What I saw was not.

    • Matt

      I can’t believe you’re talking about the profoundly moving film I’ve just had the pleasure of watching. It’s a blessing that Alan Berliner continues to make masterfully sculpted movies that are simultaneously funny, touching and poignant often in the same breath. Here’s a thought, Kevin: perhaps you’d have a better chance of appreciating a film of this order if you left your preconceptions of what a “documentary” should be at the cinema entrance.

      • Wally

        I agree with you Matt. I just saw the documentary on HBo and was overwhelmed by the simplicity of the story without any attempt to cover up both the poetic in Honig and his elusiveness relationally. Like Honig said, you just need to “remember to forget”

        • George

          Absolutely right, Matt and Wally. I would not have written, shot or edited that project in any other way. Maybe it’s because I’m 70, or maybe because Alan Berliner confides that he likely could be seeing his own future, but the masterpiece was compelling from beginning to end, and well beyond.

    • boomergran

      The movie was showing the deterioration of a mind. If there was no “thread” running through it, it’s likely because there is no “thread” running through dementia. It perfectly depicted the absence of those connections you wanted it to make.

  • Cb

    I just saw the hbo documentary and was riveted at the story that unfolded. Wasn’t expecting to watch it and couldn’t turn away from it. He captured his brilliance of his career, his sadness of childhood loss of his brother ( even through the veil of dementia he couldn’t forget) and the failure as a parent. Very touching-as he said -just remember to forget-meaningful on many levels.