NYFF: Alan Berliner’s Wrenching First Cousin, Once Removed


First Cousin Once Removed
Directed by Alan Berliner
Screens Tuesday, October 9, Thursday, October 11, and Friday, October 12

As upsetting a documentary as you’re ever likely to see, Alan Berliner’s portrait of the life of poet Edwin Honig after the onset of Alzheimer’s is the rare film that truly warrants adjectives like “courageous” or “unflinching.” It is these things, to a fault. So frank is its portrayal of Berliner’s decline – the great poet wheezes and bird-songs in the rubble of his mind – and so scrupulously unsentimental is Berliner’s approach, that the movie will for many audiences be simply too much.

Not for nothing does Berliner feel obliged to let us know in the first ten minutes that, yep, he gets the moral qualms you might be feeling. A family member expresses her disapproval with Berliner’s five-year-long project of filming his conversations with Honig, Berliner’s first cousin once removed. And in an unsettling montage where we see Berliner, day after day, knocking on Honig’s door and then having to explain just who he is again, Honig asks “What’s this?”

“It’s a camera,” Berliner responds.

“Okay!” Honig says, and the queasy feeling you’ll likely have is not all that different than the one millions of Americans have felt when gathering, say, the do-not-resuscitate signature from a relative who is slipping away.

Honig had good and bad days, which Berliner jumbles together without chronology. On both there is still some poetry. Gazing at the trees outside his window, Honig observes, “There’s stillness, and there’s movement in that stillness.” Granted, this comes a breath after he had to ask Berliner the word for “leaves,” but it’s one of many moments that thrill: A brain trained over decades to look at the world afresh can still marshal some of its power after memory is jettisoned. At other times, Honig offers up a heartbreaking doggerel: “Once upon a time I was an interesting fellow/ Now I don’t read or write without a bowl full of Jello.” Sometimes he makes up the words; sometimes he just trills beyond language.

Berliner treats us – and confounds Honig – with footage of the poet in better days. We see Honig– all vital and vibrant, his voice an octave lower and his mind a miracle of perception and allusion– declaiming his work from lecterns and at funerals. One especially wrenching sequences concerns video of Honig reading “To Restore a Dead Child,” his blunt and powerful account of the death of his younger brother at age three, a death that the-then-five-year-old Honig always has felt responsible for – and that the older Honig was still damned with remembering.

That poem, like Berliner’s films, is rich with all the complexities of humanness, and it’s also unflinching out of principle – all the proper nouns are there. Watching this, the memory-free Honig is confounded, riveted, bored, shaken: He even retains the critical habit, complaining that a line of his former self’s is too prolix. The sequence might serve as justification for Berliner’s project: These are the feelings Honig lived to stir.

Berliner offers strong visual metaphors for how brains go awry – suspension bridges snapping, avalanches crushing down. He gathers a few friends and family members to offer insights or have a go at talking with Honig, and winningly demonstrates how time and seasons shape even the life of someone with little conception of either. But again and again the film returns to Berliner confronting Honig with trauma both forgotten or not. Rarely has a filmmaker wrung such suspense from a question as simple as “Did this man ever have children?”

The answer is yes, and that Honig was a distant and sometimes cruel father, which obliges scrupulous Berliner to give us a thorough airing of the shortcomings of a man who is no more …. and even to confront the man that’s left with the earlier self’s failings. Berliner prods like only family can, with empathy not outweighed by profound disappointment, and with a persistence that can seem cruel to those of us who haven’t spent a lifetime steeped in these particular emotions and personalities.

Those scenes are such a tough watch that the film’s final moments – in which Honig at last seems leveled, and Berliner is left to scold him “Use your words!” – become by comparison more bearable. At least there’s no more confrontations. But what there is is a great mind yowling into the void, and the fear what we gain from seeing this doesn’t quite outweigh the cost in privacy and dignity. (Alan Scherstuhl)