Some docs are journalism. Some are history. Some are entertainment. Very few aspire to poetry — the Oscar-shortlisted “First Cousin, Once Removed” by Alan Berliner being a notable exception.
Ostensibly about Berliner’s cousin and his battle with Alzheimer’s disease, “First Cousin” (HBO Docs) is a film that broadens the definition of what nonfiction filmmaking can mean, while also expanding its capacity for creative expression. It tells a highly emotional story without adhering to narrative conventions; it celebrates the life of an artist in the only way that does it justice, by being art.
Five years in the making, “First Cousin” is “about” the distinguished Edwin Honig, and the poet’s painful descent into dementia. One of Berliner’s magic acts is making his movie both dispiriting and exhilarating — the former because of the obvious cruelty of disease, age and mortality; the latter because the director, freed from the constraints of conventional narrative, can alchemize pain into something close to visual euphoria. How would a poet see his life, the fading of the light, the increasing elusiveness of his own recollections? Berliner can only speculate, but he does so in pictures, and his intimacy with his cousin and his openness to visual possibilities elevate the film far beyond the single life at its center, and toward and into the essence of creativity.
Honig couldn’t explain it in words any better than Berliner, but both in their way have achieved it.
“First Cousin” is by a documentarian’s documentarian; Berliner has almost always made films that in theory would seem impossible to make and turn out to be impossible to resist. They have almost all been personal docs, several about his family, a couple about himself: In “Intimate Stranger” (1991), he explored the baroque life of his maternal grandfather; “Nobody”s Business” (1996), was about his father; “The Sweetest Sound” was about the name Alan Berliner and various other Alan Berliners; “Wide Awake” (2006), something of a beloved entry in the Berliner catalogue, was about the director’s battle with insomnia.
But “First Cousin” is something else. Yes, it is about a relative – Honig was his mother’s cousin — but also an internationally renowned poet, playwright and translator, notably from the Portugese. Berliner features Honig in various stages of an incurable disease, but not necessarily according to how the disease played out. He makes time as slippery as it must have been for his subject. He uses the bits of wisdom he collected from Honig – and his silences – the way Rauschenberg used car tires, or Picasso used the features of the human face. There is always a logic, and sense of recognition, as well as new angles, and perspectives. As Berliner has said in interviews, “Alzheimer’s might be a progressive disease but it’s not a linear disease.”
Likewise his movie. Mr. Honig may occupy the center of the film, but the periphery belongs to its director who chose to make it a torrent of metaphor and imagery.