First Cousin Once Removed
Alan Berliner, Edwin Honig
(HBO Documentary Films)
Stranger Than Fiction: 15 Jan 2013
“I know there’s a past and I know that I lived in it and that I gave it up, to live only in the present.” As Edwin Honig describes his loss of memory, his slipping into the state called Alzheimer’s disease, you watch a bridge collapsing into water. The footage is archival and black and white, a memory of another time, abstracted into a context for which it could never have been intended. Here, in Alan Berliner’s remarkable documentary, First Cousin Once Removed, that image of the bridge collapsing, in slow motion, reverberates, a brief indication of what it might feel like to break off from the past.
It’s fair to say that Honig—renowned American poet and translator, professor of literature and founder of Brown University’s creative writing program—occasions the film’s meditation on such breaking off, on the value and many meanings of the past, the ways that memories shape the present. But even as he is represented and representative, Honig is also singular, an idea that becomes increasingly clear, and somewhat troubling, as this portrait evolves.
The film—screening on 15 January at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with Berliner—initiates that evolution with a scene that is also its end. Honig is living in a facility, where Berliner visits, making his way along a hallway in multiple cuts, knocking on his cousin Edwin’s door, and introducing his camera operator Ian (Vollmer) as they set up for a conversation. “I just want to make sure you know who I am,” Berliner says. “You were a mentor to me, I always used to come to you for advice.” A few visits later, or maybe a visit or two earlier, Edwin appears n closeup, again, and he smiles: “I can’t tell you. I’ll have to be told.”
At this point, soon before his death in 2011, Edwin needs not only to be told who is visiting, but also who he is, as well as who he was. “I think a film about you will teach a lot of people what memory means,” Berliner assures his cousin, but it’s never clear what that might be, or how it might ever be clear. This sounds like an endless puzzle, and to the extent that it alludes to how humans conceive themselves, how they behave, and how they are represented, this seems an apt if approximate summary of First Cousin Once Removed. “Why am I first,” asks Edwin, and then, “Why am I removed?”
Indeed. As Edwin poses his questions, so to the film poses its own, for we might suppose that we are all, at once, first and removed in relation to ourselves and to others. And we are all in the midst of processes, losing time and memories, claiming identities and becoming images. Both Berliner and Edwin speak to the question of the camera’s function here, as it might preserve their experience, make it available to viewers, document what is happening for after, when it is no longer happening. “I am a mirror,” observes Edwin, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, you be camera and I’ll be all.”
Granted, he is a poet, and, as Berliner points out, Edwin Honig wrote incessantly, throughout his life, keeping journals for some 50 years (he tells Berliner he wrote down events and thoughts because “I didn’t want to forget them”). As he wrote and also published, Edwin developed a public name and reputation, as a translator of great writers and also as a critic, respected and also daunting. “The qualities that made him a very good critic,” remarks one of his estranged sons, “Didn’t make him a very good father.” This aspect of Edwin’s life, his private life, his wife Charlotte, lost to cancer and now also to his memory, as well as his second wife Margot, with whom he adopted two boys. Late in the film, but maybe early in the process of making the film, Berliner speaks with Margot, Jeremy, and Daniel. None is happy with how Edwin left them, even as they now contemplate this new sort of loss, his retreat or descent or remove.
“The past is not what happened,” asserts Edwin, “It’s what you remember happened. Everyone has his own picture and that’s what memory is, a picture of your life.” As he speaks, and sometimes moans and sighs and even screeches, you can picture him as he was, a process helped along by the film (and film, per se), that is, images of the younger Edwin. You can see it’s him, as he reads his work sits on his porch, and you can also see him seeing himself, as he wonders, inevitably, “Who’s this?” As the film pieces together a version of Honig, a man who suffered from the lingering memory of a three-year-old brother who died (when Edwin was five) and a father who blamed him for that accident, it includes interviews with friends and colleagues, people who admire and also explain him, and also Margot, who laments his fearfulness and his cruelty, his inability to be a “good father,” and the mark he’s left on her and their sons (“One lasting thing,” she sighs, so sadly, “is I can’t read poetry any more, at all”).
Edwin doesn’t provide much in the way of memory, to fill in what’s missing in these stories about him. He doesn’t quite describe what it’s “like” to be losing his memory either, though Berliner asks, more than once. It’s certainly possible that he’s aware of his own performance, that his poetry concerning memory and time is calculated, even that his memory is selective. The film isn’t seeking a “truth” so much as it’s offering impressions, “what it’s like.” “There are things about the mind that you can’t describe,” Edwin says, “The mind can be blank and still be going, that’s the trouble.” And so the film fills in, pictures of pages and book covers, of an avalanche, of a train rushing into the darkest possible tunnel. These metaphors are useful and lovely, and also aching, bits of poetry and gesture. If Edwin can’t find dates and words, the film offers versions, typed onto the screen and sound effects for punctuation, guessing at an experience that may await us, in time.
Winner of the top prize at Amsterdam’s IDFA documentary festival, First Cousin Once Removed is as profound and personal a film as you might imagine. That it achieves such effects even as it is, at the same time, a movie that invites you to come “inside someplace where the unspeakable, the unseeable, the unsayable can be seen,” as one interviewee puts it. “And there’s a sense in which people both want to see it and don’t want to see it.” The film allows that it may be “important” to record Edwin now, in this condition, as it might also be, as his sister Lila believes, “demeaning.” First Cousin Once Removed suggests contexts, slips in stories, and frames performances—by Edwin and those who remember him—and so, beautifully complicates and extends its project. In so doing, the film makes its project yours too, as a viewer and self-performer, and also, as someone who is losing time even as you watch.