Catalogue Essay by Thomas Logoreci
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Catalogue Statement
July 29, 2013, Castro Theater
The world is not a fair place. When Alan Berliner releases a film, people do not line up at the box office on opening day. Sometimes it is hard, nearly even impossible, to see one of them in a theater. And yet, for many of us, the arrival of a new work by the Brooklyn-born Berliner is nothing less than a watershed moment in our lives. The half dozen key films he has directed simultaneously entertain, challenge and then redefine the very notion of what a documentary is in the first place.
It seems almost a crime to label his latest, FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED, merely a personal essay about a relative struggling with Alzheimer’s. It is also happens to be a dense, complex meditation on life and death, easily one of the best documentaries of this year or any year. Berliner is able in precise, jagged bursts to call up a staggering universe of associations, for example a grainy black and white shot of a house sliding into a river, and create an emotional connection between his subconscious memories and ours.
There is no filmmaker crafting work like Alan Berliner. He’s the remarkable secret hero of the cinema whose name should be on all our lips but isn’t.
It seems unbelievable that his experimental breakthrough, THE FAMILY ALBUM (1985), was made a quarter of a century ago. Begun when Berliner purchased a collection of anonymous home movies, it set in motion the unique vocabulary that is synonymous with all his work.
With his next film, INTIMATE STRANGER (1991), a portrait of his businessman grandfather Joseph Cassuto, Berliner’s lexicon solidified. He fills the frame (and soundtrack) with more found footage adding postage stamps, police reports, family photos and a choir of opposing voices like an artist arranging the intricate pieces of a mosaic. NOBODY’S BUSINESS (1996) found Berliner deepening his techniques as he tried to capture his difficult, occasionally combative and wryly funny father, Oscar, (one of the opposing voices in INTIMATE STRANGER).
Not satisfied to go on mining his family life, Alan Berliner turned the camera on himself for his next two films THE SWEETEST SOUND (2001) and WIDE AWAKE (2006). THE SWEETEST SOUND found Alan Berliner looking for all the other Alan Berliners in the world revealing an unseen humor and playfulness unseen in his previous work. While WIDE AWAKE, ‘a portrait of the artist as an insomniac’, showed audiences an unexpected side of the filmmaker we suspected all along: an obsessive perfectionist intent on proving that creativity can only come from chaos and exhaustion.
FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED seems like the culmination of thirty years spent exploring the fertile terrain between found images and personal identity. The recent awards (Grand Prize at Amsterdam’s IDFA) and accolades appear to affirm this.
And yet Alan Berliner seems hardly content to rest on his laurels. One can only assume from the last three decades, that at fifty-six years old, mid-career, the filmmaker will continue to push the boundaries of the documentary form into another place entirely. Maybe there is some justice in this world after all.