Acclaimed filmmaker Alan Berliner has been thinking a lot about names lately — how names are handed down through history, how they affect the way we think about one another, and how they function in what he calls “the language of memory.”
The Sweetest Sound, Berliner’s serio-comic meditation on individuality and the poetry of one’s own name, premieres Tuesday, June 26, 2001 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings). It is the second program in the 14th season of POV, public television’s groundbreaking showcase of independent, non-fiction films.
In such award-winning films as The Family Album, Intimate Stranger, and Nobody’s Business (all of which have been broadcast on POV), Berliner has become known for his idiosyncratic forays into matters of human identity and personality — what binds us, what separates us, and what endures over time — often turning to his own family as a subject. In The Sweetest Sound, which premiered before enthusiastic audiences at the recent 2001 Berlin Film Festival, Berliner turns the camera on himself in order to explore the essence of what a name really means.
“How do you convey the power, magic and mystery of names?” asks Berliner. “The way they confer identity? How they function as compressed histories — a set of codes that tell us where we come from, who we are, who we were, or sometimes even who we might want to be? The only way I could figure out how to do it was to fully examine one name very closely. My own.”
Along the way, The Sweetest Sound takes a look at the historical origin of names and their social roles, finds the filmmaker questioning his parents about why they chose the particular combination of syllables he inhabits, interviews people on the streets of New York City, and visits various name societies around the country — like the Jim Smith Society and the National Linda Convention — that seem to celebrate the anonymity of sharing a collective and common name.
His quest even takes him to Ellis Island, where, surprisingly, he learns that the widespread belief that immigrants’ names were changed by lazy or devious inspectors is more myth than fact. According to Marian Smith, chief historian of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Barry Moreno, librarian of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Statue of Liberty National Monument, name changes were instead part of a broader social process, suggested to the immigrants by co-workers, teachers, priests, rabbis, friends and family members, or in some cases imposed upon them by landlords or employers.
But the main focus of Berliner’s journey leads him to muse over his own yearning to be unique, and the very role of a name in influencing personality and a sense of individuality. And what really bothers him is being mistaken for someone else named Alan Berliner. Berliner calls it “the same-name syndrome” — a difficulty accepting that there are other people out there who also have “his” name. It seems he’s always being mistaken for the Belgian filmmaker, Alain Berliner, and often congratulated for having made his film, Ma Vie en Rose, which won a Golden Globe Award in 1997. Or constantly receiving pay checks (the good part) and phone calls asking for shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra (the bad part) intended for Alan Berliner, the celebrity photographer living in Los Angeles.
To confront, and perhaps to exorcise his demons, Berliner conducts an Internet search on his name (known as “ego-surfing”), supplemented by 800 hand-signed letters sent out to Berliner families around the world, in his zeal to locate everyone he can find named Alan Berliner and invite them to dinner at his New York City home.
When 12 other Alans accept, Berliner films the Alan Berliner dinner as he decides whether the 12 other Alan Berliners are his “name cousins” or actually “the competition.” In the end, The Sweetest Sound becomes an absorbing personal essay in search of the primal connection between names and identity.