What kind of a person must a filmmaker be? Martin Scorsese asks himself this question, while recognizing that the only thing he can do to show to Elia Kazan how much his films have influenced his life and career, how much his way of filming has always spoken to him, artistically and personally, is by making films as well. That’s why Scorsese decided to direct “Letter to Elia,” a film homage that premieres this year at the New York Film Festival. This same identification, keen analysis, and admiration towards someone else’s work brought me from Spain to New York two years ago, to be close to the experiments in time, light and motion of independent filmmaker and media artist Alan Berliner. Why? After amassing a body of work that includes fifteen films and more than thirty audio and video installations, Alan Berliner has perfected a unique alchemical process of storytelling, in which the way a story is told is as important as the story itself; each of his projects solves its own form and content puzzle in unique and satisfying ways. All his work (which uses homes movies, found imagery, found photographs, archival images, and sound) is a virtual lesson in film history. His explorations have documented the full breadth of human emotion – anger, fear, vulnerability, love, care, determination, delicacy, humor, and death — real moments born from real emotions, often from his own family, his friends, and of course, from and within himself. Alan Berliner is, I like to say, an artist who inhabits a wizard’s world where the unexpected is, necessarily, the only thing expected.
After all this time collaborating with Alan Berliner, I’m still opening the first of many boxes that hold the mysteries of his creative process. Having direct access to a cineaste with a unique way of combining the arithmetic of personal and audiovisual connections, and witnessing his endless passion and untiring daily work routine, has given me the co-ordinates of a landscape where love, art, lifestyle, and films are, essentially, the very same thing. Alan Berliner’s frame of mind is, I have learned, a place where cinematic language looks for reinvention, memory, and beauty, to survive. In a career devoted to pushing the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, his most recent film, “Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s,” which has its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, takes Berliner’s experiments with montage, identity, and memory farther than he’s ever gone before. And this is the story behind it.
Just a few months ago, Alan Berliner was in the middle of making a feature-length film about memory loss titled, “Lost on Memory Lane,” centered around his cousin, friend and former mentor — the poet, translator, critic, and teacher, Edwin Honig. After reflecting upon several years worth of footage documenting Edwin’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease, Alan was moved to consider a radical “re-think” of his relationship to the material, and began experimenting with new strategies for presenting Edwin’s condition — ideas that were more daring and provocative than his original plans. He began by making two new short films, “56 Ways of Saying “I Don’t Remember,” and “Time and Again” (a title borrowed from an anthology of Edwin’s poems,) each of which uses repetition and quick cutting to restructure the poet’s speech and thought process. The result is an acknowledgement of the power of language, highlighting Edwin’s percussive and guttural vocabulary of words, sounds, songs and mutterings. Berliner then built four other short films around them, resulting in a 19-minute suite of six films, each individually titled, whose collective strength gives Alan’s portrait of Edwin an honesty, more humanity, and a sense of dignity as we see him gradually fading towards the end of his life. “Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s” stands on its own as a powerful statement about a poet who may have lost his control of language, but not his relationship to words. It also serves as an introduction to the longer film project which will be completed in 2011, and which has now been forever altered and liberated by the playful process that generated these six new approaches. This ability to play with alternate possibilities for interconnecting images and sounds, and to reinvent his dialectical process, is at the heart of the grammar of Alan Berliner’s filmmaking.
In a form reminiscent of the film, “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993), by François Girard, and under the artistic spell of the late portraits of painter Francis Bacon, Alan Berliner, juxtaposing, pushing, and pulling, has found many surprising ways to create the unwritten, and fragile symphony of getting old. Through the sensitivity of the lens of Alan’s long-time friend and cameraman, Ian Vollmer, Edwin talks, wonders, thinks, remembers, forgets, whistles, whispers, sings, yells, and growls — looking at himself and at the camera, which in Berliner’s films is just another member of the family. If we are aware of the influence that the early cinema, and the Bauhaus (a word that, meaningfully enough can be translated as “House of Building” or “Building School,”) as well as artists like Picasso and Mondrian have had in Alan Berliner’s imaginarium, we’ll understand “Translating Edwin Honig” much better. The shots of Edwin are edited in a kind of temporal cubism, intercut from different stages of his memory loss, different placements of the camera, each with a different face, a different attitude, and a different language to be “translated” — in his attempt to struggle against the hurricane that has brought such havoc and emptiness to his mind. Like in Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” the repetitions try to fix the memories of Edwin Honig in an uncertain place and time, creating the rhythm of the editing, giving a different physicality to his eyes, hands, and ears, trapping us in a loop where the “brutality of fact” performs its known reality, over and over again. As Resnais main character said, the story is back to its starting point leaving us “losing our way forever in the stillness of night.”
Alan Berliner has used film and interactive installations as a medium to better understand his relationship with his family (past, present, and future), with identity, with his city (New York), with religious ritual, and with art. His films talk to each other, back and forth, and selected images are repeated from one work to another like the DNA of a family tree. A shot of the Statue of Liberty first appeared in “Intimate Stranger” (1991), a film portrait of Alan’s grandfather, Joseph Cassuto, and then, five years later, in “Nobody’s Business,” a film about Alan’s relationship with his father, Oscar Berliner. The same repetition (persistence may be a better word) happens with a shot of Alan’s mother, when she was quite young, playing Kadima on the beach. In the last section of “Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s,” Alan asks Edwin what “one thing” he would say to millions of people watching him in a film, (“Remember how to forget.” is his answer), which is reminiscent of the moment when Alan asked the same sort of question to his father in “Nobody’s Business.” Edwin repeats the filmmaker’s last name several times, “Berliner, Berliner, Berliner,” like Alan himself did in “The Sweetest Sound” (2001), his film about names. And Edwin misunderstands Alan when he’s asked about his childhood, mistaking the word “childhood” for the word “charity,” not unlike the way Oscar did when Alan asked him about the best attitude towards death (his father thought he was asking about the best attitude towards sex…). “Nobody’s Business” was a tour-de-force, a boxing ring where questions and answers between father and son are flung around like jabs and punches. And there are connections with other films as well – for instance, Alan cites “Marlene,” by Maximilian Schell, as another example of a film in which the main character, in this case Marlene Dietrich, doesn’t want to collaborate with the filmmaker, and thinks the whole project is a big waste of time. Edwin Honig, who just turned 91, is also a strong spirit, and Alzheimer’s disease is making his ability to engage in conversation progressively more difficult. Instead of surrendering, and in despite of the daunting challenge of this situation, Alan is turning to the more lyrical fun and freedom of his experimental collage films from the 1980’s, in particular, the poetic symphony “Everywhere at Once” (1985).
Literature has been a very important element of Alan Berliner’s creative process, and not only because books surround him during every step of making a film. It works as a thread that interweaves throughout Alan’s conceptual “architecture,” like train rails, windows and bridges. For him, the sound of a small bell, or the click of a metronome is the end of a cinematic sequence, as easily as a period defines the end of a sentence. In both his films and his installation projects, there are poems, letters, handwriting, typewriters, and even haikus — his video installation “Playing God” (2008) is a “seven-screen slot-machine-like game” that allows seemingly infinite possible “poetic” word combinations contained within the 837 words that comprise the story of creation in the book of Genesis. And that’s only an example of his meticulous, organized, but also very organic sense of detail. When Alan Berliner went to Japan with his mother in 1990 (“the trip of our lives,” he calls it) for “Intimate Stranger,” he shot the commemorative party that the Japanese had arranged in honor of his grandfather, Joseph Cassuto. In preparing for the visit, Berliner knew the names of all his grandfather’s Japanese colleagues, their spouses, and their children, their birthdays, wedding dates, and dozens of other personal details (culled from decades of intimate correspondence) many of which they themselves probably had forgotten (or never thought it important enough to remember). Obsession, in film related activities, seems to be a gesture of responsibility and gratitude. In his interview with David Sylvester, Francis Bacon says, “after all, the only thing that makes anybody interesting is their dedication.” Alan Berliner is a classic example of an artist who simply cannot breathe if he cannot forge new paths for storytelling or invent new and authentic personal audio-visual statements at the cutting-edge. In the film “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff”, by Craig McCall, also presented at the New York Film Festival, Martin Scorsese talks about the Technicolor era as a period where color became the film itself, where films were like paintings that moved physically, emotionally, and psychologically — something that allowed contemporary British filmmaking at the time to explore roads beyond the traditional standards. That is also something that we could say about the avant-garde cinema, though Scorsese was referring to the Hollywood film industry. The academic Gloria Floren, in her essay “Avant-Garde (Experimental) Films” declares that “whether it be in manipulation in narrative materials, in highly stylized visual representation, or in radical departures from the norms or conventions current at the time, avant-garde film is always a vehicle for the filmmaker’s expression.” Far from pretending to imprison the avant-garde world under the low ceiling of a simple definition, Alan Berliner’s artistic and mythic explorations – often using documentary materials in innovative ways – defy categorization, defy expectations, and push the boundaries of both genres in new directions. That has and will always make his work special, and different.
Seen as a whole, all of Alan’s films are, in one way or another, obsessed with sounds, stories, home movies, relationships, memories, and legacies from the past. In many ways, he’s been assembling and building his own ongoing cinematic family album. Joseph Cassuto died in 1974, but we can look at his face, his smiles, and his universal worries, 36 years later while the wheel of history is knocking on our door. And if in “The Family Album” a boat was a metaphor of the universal journey to death, in “Translating Edwin Honig. A Poet’s Alzheimer’s,” musicality becomes the way to transcend memories as we navigate toward our final days. Alan Berliner’s creations are all so different and yet, at the same time, so interconnected. In “The Family Album” (1986), Berliner worked with found footage (even the title was borrowed from an old home movie title card; the original title had been “Children of All Ages”), serendipity and the intense passion of a “collector” — gathering anonymous home movies and audiotapes from more than 75 different families. He also uncovered a reel of home movies from the 1930’s, shot by the personal cinematographer of the President of the American Express Bank, which is also used in the film. As Alan Berliner likes to say, “if someone from Mars learned about life on Earth solely based on our home movies, it would seem that every season is summer, every month is August, every day is Sunday, and that our lives are just one long series of celebrations – a planet of leisure without any struggle.”
Alan Berliner’s favorite shot in “The Family Album” is of a woman with dark circles and veins around her eyes, because of the power of her face. His life-long fascination with faces led to “Gathering Stones” (1999), one of his most emotive installations, where he gathered hundreds of photographs of the faces of anonymous men, women, and children from the archive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In “Translating Edwin Honig. A Poet’s Alzheimer’s,” Edwin’s many faces, shot across the different stages of his Alzheimer’s disease, coexist and talk to one another in a complex dialogue through the rhymes and rhythms of Berliner’s montage. “Translating Edwin Honig” goes through all the seasons, all the moods, all the struggles and burdens of growing old, remembering and forgetting. For the longer film project, “Lost on Memory Lane,” Alan Berliner is working with decades worth of journals handwritten by his cousin Edwin, hundreds of photographs, videos of lectures and poetry readings, video interviews, and home movies – to which he will add sounds and images of Edwin as he is today — in full awareness of the fact that he is now in the position of constructing Edwin’s family album – and therefore, Edwin’s legacy.
Unexpected connections also make the New York Film Festival a very special place to present “Translating Edwin Honig.” Destiny has also made Yoko Ono an important figure of the Festival this year, since she is the main narrator of the film “LennoNYC,” about the relationship of John Lennon with the city that both gave him (and took away) a life of dreams: New York City. Curiously enough, Yoko Ono once asked Alan Berliner for advice on organizing and preserving the vast archive of film material about Lennon, a few years after his death. (Alan consulted, but didn’t actually join the process.) For the record, a few years earlier, Berliner did say yes to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who asked him to make a film from their large collection of 16mm home movies. (He made them a two-hour film, which has never been shown publicly.) And there are also two other films that Berliner worked on (for hire) that are not to be found on his current resume: one is “Broadway’s Dreamers: The Legacy of the Group Theater” (1989), narrated by Woodward, which Berliner edited; the other is “Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed” (1996), a project that Berliner took on as director after initially being consulted as an advisor.
It’s impossible to predict how Alan Berliner’s work will evolve in the future, but it is sure to explore the delicate bridges connecting small gestures to universal revelations. There is also the question of what will happen with the preservation of his film and media archive – he has become a thoughtful keeper of orphaned films, oral histories, and anonymous family photographs. Alan Berliner’s paternal grandmother, Sarah, had 13 children. The last two of them died as infants, and there is a tombstone in the Mount Judah Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, inscribed with the name “Baby Berliner.” As a young child, each time Alan went to visit her, she would be sitting in the same chair. Suddenly, on one Sunday visit, the chair was empty…. That was Alan’s first introduction to death – a “jump cut” across memory. By then, Alan was five. Now, he is 53 — an artist, a husband, and a father of a six year-old boy named Eli. For Alan Berliner, shooting home movies of his son (the shelf in his studio has about 150 hours so far) represents the joy that comes with growth of a life and a memory at full strength. Simultaneously chronicling the decline of his cousin Edwin, who no longer has a memory, is an encounter with Alan’s own fears of aging, of his own anxiety about memory loss, but also a chance to allow Edwin the opportunity for one last grand poetic gesture. The intersection of these two stories at opposite ends of the life cycle is sure to ignite new circuits, weave new threads, and generate new forms of exquisite filmmaking. Maybe one day, Eli will have the chance to meet his grandfather Oscar (who died three years before he was born), inside one of Alan Berliner’s time machine montages — face-to-face, palm-to-palm, dream-to-dream. Who wouldn’t want something like that?
Text and videos by Mónica Savirón.