Alan Berliner discusses memory, poetry, and the process of making First Cousin Once Removed

When director Alan Berliner introduced First Cousin Once Removed on Tuesday, he told the STF audience, “Making this film challenged every assumption I’ve ever had about the notion of memory.” The film is a portrait of Berliner’s cousin, Edwin Honig, a poet and teacher who spent the last years of his life suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Berliner interviewed Honig on multiple occasions, documenting different stages of his dementia. The resulting film is a visually poetic exploration of memory, family, and identity. Honig passed away in 2011, but Berliner shared his hope that “with this film, I’ve preserved Edwin’s mind.” After the screening, Berliner joined STF’s Thom Powers for a conversation about his relationship with Honig and the filmmaking process.

Stranger Than Fiction: Can you elaborate on your relationship with Edwin? Clearly it was very close, but how far back did it go?

Alan Berliner: Well, when I was growing up, Edwin was sort of like a rumor in my family. For reasons that I think are somewhat obvious in the film, Edwin had removed himself from my family. He moved out to California, then to Wisconsin for a little while, and then at some point he came back and taught at Harvard and Brown. And it wasn’t until I started to become, if you’ll allow, a fledgling filmmaker, and started to realize that I had this real-life poet cousin in Providence, that it occurred to me that this was a real gift. This was like a real opportunity. And so I contacted him, and we became very fast and very close friends.

Whatever it meant to me to have a kind of family mentor, it was also important for Edwin to meet me. And the reason I say that is because I was a bridge back to family. I could suddenly give him news about people. I could suddenly get him invited to family events – even if he didn’t go, it didn’t matter. So as much as it meant for me to have a mentor who I could learn from and talk with and understand poetry and art with, for him it was an equal relationship – though obviously quite different. I mean, the man was 36 years older than I am. So, you know, you’re talking about decades here. Generations of difference.

Our relationship grew over time. Every film I’ve made from then on, we discussed and talked about. He wrote poems for me. He even came to some family events, which was really nice. The truth is, my mother is his first cousin, and she really barely knew him. I was his family on that side. I was his family.

STF: Some of the filmmaking here almost feels like journal-keeping, and I wonder, as you were filming your interviews with him, was it always with the intention of making a film, or were you just recording and the idea of a film came later?

Berliner: Well, I was actually – I had memory on the brain. In a way, all of my films are about memory, but I had memory on the brain. I met this woman in California who I wanted to make a film about who had superabundant personal memory. You give her a date, she knew exactly what she did on that date, and she knew exactly what happened in history on that date. Neurologists analyzed her for five years, and she was the real deal. They wrote 40-page papers about her. And I was really interested in her, but she lived in Los Angeles, and with all due respect to people who live in Los Angeles, umm…she hired an agent. (laughter) You know? It wasn’t going to happen.

Anyway, around that time, I went to talk to Edwin. And Edwin, at that point, knew that he was losing his memory a little bit, but he was in the confabulation stage. Do people know this word, confabulation? It’s a very interesting thing where you ask a person,  “What day is today?,” and they’ll say, “Oh, I know the date. I don’t have to tell you that,” or “Do you know the date?” They answer a question with a question. They’re deflecting. There are a number of ways that people, especially smart people, can deflect, and you won’t even realize it. People can go on for years deflecting. It was true in my father as well. Major confabulator. Anyway, I realized what was happening with Ed, and we talked about, it, and I said, “Maybe I’m gonna come back next time with a camera, and we can talk.” One thing led to another, and I realized this had potential to go on for a rather long time. But I was going to just continue to pursue it.

Every time I met Edwin, it was a kind of duet. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was a duet. And in many ways, when I think about the project cumulatively, I think you could say he’s the subject of the film, and yes he’s the object of the film, however you want to parse those words, but to me, throughout, he’s also in many ways the co-author. I think of it as a duet. And every time I went there, every time, even if he didn’t have much to say, I never left without a sense, without feeling emanations of wisdom from him. You know, from the very beginning. And that was really important. I wasn’t just visiting him to make a film. I was learning from him about life, about death, and about the fragility of being human, let alone everything else that had to do with memory.

STF: I was thinking about the three films you’ve made about your family members: Intimate Stranger about your grandfather, Nobody’s Business about your father, and this one. And all three films are very clear-eyed about these men as flawed people, and yet also very tender portraits. You come away with great warmth for these individuals, and yet there’s no hiding that they had some flaws. I was wondering if you could talk about the trickiness of growing out those portraits, if you think it’s a coincidence that you’ve made these three films about difficult characters, or if you’re drawn to that.

Berliner: Well, I’m clearly drawn to that, there’s no question. It’s a big question that you ask. Every film I make, I somehow think of as a kind of Trojan horse. It’s ostensibly about my grandfather, that’s how I describe it – “This is about my father;” This is about my cousin, the poet” – but I like to think that each film is packed with layers and layers of subtext, and layers and layers of deeper, pointed issues. They’re always about identity, always about memory, always about the relationship of past, present, and future, always about family history. I made these films about family members, I suppose, because I have access to them.

So, in a way, each film is a kind of reiteration of a series of fascinations I have. During the course of making this film, Edwin said to me, “What you’re doing is like writing a poem, where you’re changing what people are thinking and making it what you want them to think.” And that made me reflect on what filmmakers do. It also made me reflect on poetry. I had to start to think about Edwin as a poet, and how poets are really – I’m going to be a little grandiose here, I’m gonna generalize, but why not? – poets are special citizens in our culture. They’re beacons of truth. They’re the translators of experience for better and for worse, the best of human potential and the worst of human frailty. They make the invisible visible. They teach us.

And Edwin thought of himself as a capital-P Poet. He lived his life that way. He studied, taught, translated. I was making a portrait of a poet, and that’s big stuff. And there’s no hiding. Everything in Edwin’s life was part of who he was. And he wrote about all these things. He wrote about all his grief: the death of his first wife, Charlotte; the death of his brother, Stanley, which was the big ghost in his life; the divorce of Margot and the estrangement of his children. He wrote about all these things. I felt really inspired by that. I take no pretense to being a poet myself – I’m a filmmaker – but I was inspired to find metaphors. I found visual metaphors and sound metaphors to give the film a poesy that Edwin would respect, that would be dignified, that would resonate with his legacy and with my memory of him, my understanding of him. I worked really hard to try to do that.

Audience: I’m wondering if any psychiatrist has looked at this film, or if you’ve shown it to a group of psychiatrists, and what kind of reaction they’ve had to the father and son relationships that are depicted.

Berliner: There would be a lot for a psychiatrist to say about this story, but the film hasn’t shown enough times yet…

STF: Are there any psychiatrists in the house? (laughter)

Berliner: Well, we’re all psychiatrists, in a way.

Audience: I have hours and hours of home movies from my childhood. I often think about whether I have memories anymore or if I just remember what I’ve seen in home movies. And as cameras become more ubiquitous, like with your son – is he going to have memories, or is he going to have memories of memories? Can you comment on that?

Berliner: I think that’s one of the trickiest things of all. I mean, I have a fair amount of documentation of my childhood, and the photographs that I look at from time to time, the home movies I have, they become…you know, “Is it real or is it Memorex?” And even Edwin says, “Memory is not what happens, it’s what you remember happened.”

Making this film made me reflect on a lot of things. Throughout my life, I always thought I had a good memory. I think in order to be a filmmaker, you kind of have to have a good memory. I remember when I kicked this film out of the Avid system, it told me that I had 5,674 discreet items. That’s images, pieces of sound…and I thought, “Wow, I just made a puzzle.” That’s what this film is. 5,674 discreet pieces that I put in order, pieces that I had to remember lots of things about. In any event, I used to think I had a great memory. But, you know, in order to have a good memory now, I write everything down. I write everything down because, if I don’t write it down, I tend not to remember it. And that’s not only little details about this shot or an idea for juxtapositions, but even in my life. Even when I was watching the film tonight, I had a piece of paper because I wanted to remember something about the mix. I had to write it down because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have remembered. So when I work, I’m surrounded with little pieces of paper. Every desk I ever have, you know, there are always little pieces of paper. And making this has made me think, if I was dropped on a desert island, without paper and pencils and pens, I might not survive. Maybe I have a terrible memory, and without this ability, this crutch of writing it down…maybe that’s a confabulatory mechanism that I have. I don’t have the answer. That’s another kind of psychologist/psychiatrist question.

But about my son, all I can say is I have 160, 170-some odd hours of home movies of the first 7, almost 8 years of his life, and he loves coming to my studio, because we just go on a magical journey. I say, “Do you wanna see your first step?” “Do you wanna see when you went to your first baseball game and sat behind home plate?” And he’s just enthralled, and these are magical moments for him. He wouldn’t remember sitting behind home plate in Camden Yards in Baltimore if I didn’t show it to him. And I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other examples of moments in his life.

STF: You’re setting a high bar for the rest of us fathers. (laughter)

Berliner: They’re going to be his memories one day.

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