Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of the Netflix release of Sundance sensation Dick Johnson Is Dead, we’re looking back on other documentaries with deeply personal angles.
Over the course of a documentary career spanning four decades, Alan Berliner has worked his way through his family tree, setting out to demonstrate that every human being has a fascinating story to tell. Intimate Stranger (1991) profiled Berliner’s maternal grandfather, who began doing business in Japan and became irresistibly drawn to the country and its people, alienating his wife and kids in the process. A few years later, Berliner turned his camera onto his own father, Oscar Berliner, despite Dad’s grumpy insistence that no audience could possibly care about his boring existence; the resulting film, Nobody’s Business (1996), landed a coveted berth at the New York Film Festival and eventually won an Emmy. Impressive, but could he possibly pull off that trick a third time, focusing on an even more distant relative?
Indeed he could. First Cousin Once Removed—the title reveals Berliner’s connection to his subject—depicts what one might euphemistically call the twilight years of Edwin Honig, a renowned poet, playwright, and translator. (He also taught at both Harvard and Brown, launching the latter’s Graduate Writing Program.) Honig suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during this period, and Berliner’s film, shot over a number of years, chronicles his progressive dementia with brutal candor—too brutal, according to some of Honig’s other relatives, who worry aloud about what Honig would think of the project were he entirely himself. This ethical quandary alone could fuel a feature-length documentary (and likely has fueled others): Is it fair to film a person who’s effectively incapable of understanding what he’s participating in, much less actively consenting to it? Wouldn’t a man who devoted his professional life to language be mortified by the prospect of a cinematic legacy in which he frequently has difficulty remembering what he’s trying to say?
Perhaps. But Berliner makes the strongest possible case for proceeding, making a magnificently poetic film that a younger and cognitively unimpaired Honig might very well have championed. Right from the outset, First Cousin Once Removed rejects the easy pathos of the downward slide, fragmenting years of footage and multiple stages of dementia into an impressionistic mosaic. There’s virtually no conventional chronology here—Honig will often begin a sentence at one point in time and complete it years later (as signaled by an instantaneous change of clothes, location, physical appearance), or deliver three varying responses to the same question in rat-a-tat succession. Onscreen text provides exposition that simultaneously serves as counterpoint to what’s happening visually at that moment, reminding us of Honig’s formidable intellectual accomplishments even as his eyes wander in confusion. While we occasionally see home movies of Honig from previous decades, most of the archival footage that Berliner employs is explicitly metaphorical, even counterintuitive; at one point, when Honig unexpectedly starts rambling about the sky, Berliner shows us images of the sea, which somehow feels devastatingly apropos. And none of this brilliant technique (which includes some sublime collage work) effaces its subject’s remarkable mind, with its heartbreaking, half-lucid observations and inventories. Even the film’s title is at once literally true and thematically incisive. Of all the branches on Berliner’s family tree, this one may prove to be the most fruitful.