EDWIN HONIG IN FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED "The mind can be blank and still be going: that's the trouble"
The ravages of Alzheimer's on a distinguished mind is the subject of this beautifully edited, well (if far from fully) contextualized study of Alan Berliner's cousin, the poet, translator, and professor Edwin Honig, who died last year at 91 with Alzheimer's disease. The film focuses on material gathered on regular visits over a five-year period and the steady deterioration of memory from confusion about who Berliner is to being unable to recall simple words and sequences of words, but with a great many variations in between, both awesome and troubling. At the end Honig is often making noises rather than talking. But all along Berliner stimulates him with photographs, memorabilia, and questions, and even in ruins this intellect is fascinating and remarkably poetic, at worst Lear and the Fool combined. He can suddenly utter a line of poetry or a keen observation about his situation. "Time now is what I do when I sit in this chair," he says. And he utters paradoxes like "Try to remember how to lose memory." Cuts from interviews with relatives, former students, and close friends fill in details about Honig in the role of father, teacher, and friend. The testimony of two sons and an ex-wife particularly underline that he could be a cruel and difficult man. He can't attach any meaning to the word love. This HBO documentary can be disturbing, especially to those in fear of what old age may bring (this didn't happen to Honig full-on till his mid-eighties). But in making the film, as Honig once suggests, Berliner is making a "poem," one that perceptively dissects and embodies themes like time, memory, and achievement.
The hard-heartedness of the man has its clear origins in an unloving mother and father. Honig's father was a cantor with an exalted sense of his own godliness and a low opinion of his son. As a boy of five, Honig ran out in the street and was followed by his three-year-old brother, and the brother was run over and killed. The father, devastated by grief, took refuge in forever blaming the boy. This terrible accident is the one thing from his life, Honig says, when asked, that he can't forget. The many books he published, the universities where he taught, the children and wives, the high honors bestowed by the Spanish and Portuguese governments for the translations of great literary classics of both countries -- all forgotten, or recalled only when his memory is jogged by Berliner. But not that terrible dash into the street and the cab that ran over his littler brother, or, no doubt, the cruel burden of blame bestowed by his father. That too he can recall.
In 2010, Berliner edited some footage he'd shot of Edwin Honig called “56 Ways of Saying 'I Don’t Remember'” and “Time and Again” (a title borrowed from an anthology of Edwin’s poems). Both of these were included in a more limited earlier recension called Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet's Alzheimer's
(2010) that was shown as a a sidebar item of the 2010 New York Film Festival. In the 2012 edits, Honig developed a use of repetition and quick cuts to give a layered sense of Honig's rapidly deteriorating memory and changed look and personality. In addition to adding the interviews for this new longer film, which considerably expands the sense of context, Berliner has also unified the film and given it a metaphorical context by using typewriter clack-sounds accompanying quick cuts. Thus sequences are pulled together and allusion is made to the quick mind, sudden revelations prompted by Berliner, or mental gaps. These effects blend with shots of the manual Hermes typewriter on which Honig did most of his writing as well as even more metaphorical images of a blackbird tapping on the keyboard with its beak -- suggesting one knows not what, perhaps the cruelty of Honig's pen or his brutal honesty.
A revelatory gesture on Berliner's part was his effort to interview the two young (adopted) sons of Honig's young second wife, who had been estranged from their father since childhood. He went to California to film the blond younger son who declined to revisit his declining father and who says that it's over now, that he forgives the man, but his only "problem" was that he was "an asshole." It rings true, and this must be balanced against others' testimony of love and admiration for Honig -- but understood in the context of early traumas that, the film suggests, Honig never managed to dealt with. A sweet touch is footage of Berliner's own very young son playing with the old man, whose love of music is fed by their sharing time on a wind instrument and a piano. These visits by the boy, non-judgmental, wholly in the present, show the ravaged Honig smiling and happy, even willing to say "I like you." But it is chilling to hear the words of Honig's former young wife, originally his very pretty student, who raised those two boys alone after Honig was asked to leave. She says that one lasting effect of her time with him is that she has never been able to read poetry since.
Since Berliner has included so much more about relationships in this fuller film sponsored by HBO on the basis of the earlier one, it's a shame he doesn't take more of a stab at explaining the disconnect between the love and admiration of some and the negative picture of Honig as husband and father. But the footage of Honig with Alzheimer's is perhaps still too much a main focus in this version to allow space for further analysis of the man, and much about his life goes unmentioned. Nor is this meant to be a full biography of someone who had a very rich working life.
Earlier films by Alan Berliner include Intimate Stranger
(1991), a study of the double life of his maternal grandfather, an Egyptian Jew who went to live in Japan as a cotton merchant, and Nobody's Business
(1996), an intimate study of his own father, Oscar Berliner. Berliner's exhaustive but also witty examination of his chronic insomnia, Wide Awake
, was included in the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival. This documentary, which will be shown on HBO, is part of the main slate of the 50th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Centeer, where it was screened for this review, and debuts there. In a Q&A Berliner said he had barely findished his editing, and might still be too close to the material to know fully how he feels about it and about his complex cousin.