I made the terrible mistake of reading the press pack before I watched this film. Berliner’s hyperbolic claims about his film as “an engagement with history… the most difficult, the riskiest challenge… the irony of going deeper within, in order to tackle a ubiquitous universal subject…. recapitulating the inherent argument for the personal nonfiction film …” put me in a filthy mood by the time I slipped the tape into my VCR. The director’s self-absorbed self regard got my hackles up, especially in view of his back catalogue of home movie films and screen portraits of his own family.
Annoyance with a filmmaker’s self-obsession is not the best frame of mind for approaching The Sweetest Sound. Its premise is the ultimate narcissism that the sweetest sound in the world is the sound of one’s own name. Alan Berliner works through the implications of being Alan Berliner, but not the only Alan Berliner. He throws a dinner party for twelve other men, who also happen to be called Alan Berliner, in an attempt to explore the meaning of his name. His pretensions seem misplaced. As an idea, it strikes me less as ‘high concept’, and more in the spirit of ‘Reality TV’, i.e. ordinary people put on screen for flimsy reasons in slightly humiliating circumstances, almost on a par with the UK Channel 4 series of three-minute shorts about real women named Bridget Jones.
I managed to overcome the initial hostility provoked by the written promotional blurb, and in spite of myself, I enjoyed watching the tape. The Sweetest Sound turned out to be a playful film with a great deal of whimsical charm and original visual style. The thirteen-Alan-Berliners-round-one-table dinner party falls rather flat, but it excruciates in an entertaining way. Berliner has a light touch with archive and found footage, a simple but appealing way with locked-off camera set-ups, and a fine ear for layered sound editing.
Intercut with the dinner party story are vox pops and lengthy reflections and digressions from Berliner, including the bizarre nuggets from his research that people whose surnames come towards the end of the alphabet have more heart attacks and strokes than those of us nearer the beginning, and that the correct term for typing your own name into a search engine is called “ego-surfing”. There’s a certain beachcomber’s delight in his meandering structure. For my money, there are too many pixilated, close-up sequences of web browsers and too many filmmaker in-jokes. To include a list of fifteen rejected titles for your film in the final cut is endearing, but rather self-indulgent. Self-indulgence though is the name of the game in the territory Berliner has chosen to occupy, and he does it with good grace.