First Cousin Once Removed

Alan Berliner

USA, 2012.

A portrait of director Berliner’s distant cousin, friend and former mentor Edwin Honig, who is living with Alzheimer’s. Honig was a poet, translator, literary critic and university lecturer. Now he has lost almost all connection with his own past, his family and his personal identity. But sometimes his poetic soul flickers back to life again. A film essay on the function of memory and the importance of our ability to remember and forget.

No, this is not another film about Alzheimer’s. At the beginning of First Cousin Once Removed, Berliner defies any expectations of a traditional chronological narrative in which we follow the final months or years of an Alzheimer’s patient, witnessing the deterioration.

A fast sequence of Berliner walking down the corridor to the front door of first cousin Edwin Honig’s apartment, in varying outfits, depicting the many times he walked this walk, presents us with the language of the film: here is a construction and interpretation of this topic, pasting together shots taken over a range of occasions. Whether or not the many walks down the corridor were actually filmed over the years or in a day of changing shirts and shaving doesn’t matter.

First Cousin… is a highly fractured and playfully reassembled story, a mash-up of all the footage collected: interviews (Honig is unable to remember much from his past, so friends and former students, and family members provide the information Honig is now missing), observation, talks to and with Honig (which seem repetitive, but that makes sense given his situation), archive footage, letters, photos. This is interspersed with metaphoric images that illustrate Honig’s situation and with writings accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter and generally by a rich soundtrack. It is a style we know from Berliner’s previous films, such as Nobody’s Business (1996) and Wide Awake (2006). Aware of potential criticism for exploiting his cousin, Berliner hedges against it by including both opposition and support for what he is doing.

The film is reflexive as well: Berliner tries to converse with Honig on screen; he has Honig respond to photos and archive footage, and to the film in the making. After ‘discussing’ the poets Honig translated and his abilities with language and words, Honig brings the narrative forward: “Alright then, let us have the next story”. Near the end, Berliner asks Honig to imagine being in a film and millions of people watching: what would he say to them? “Remember how to forget” Honig answers. Although the film is a cascade of images and sounds, everything interrelated. Through the fractured narrative, Berliner seems to recreate the associative ways human beings can connect memories, places, names, and experiences. Through this narrative, several themes emerge in First Cousin: identity (of Honig as well as Berliner), memory, trauma, poetry, music, family, and death.

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