First Cousin Once Removed Dir. Alan Berliner

[HBO; 2012]

Styles: documentary, family, biography
Others: Nobody’s Business, The Forgetting, Away From Her

“I know there’s a past and I know I lived in it, and I know that I gave it up to live only in the present.”

Edwin Honig, a gifted poet with many titles and honors, speaks with dignity and purpose, but he embodies a kind of horror that goes way beyond slashers and teen screams: he has lost most of his memory in his old age. In First Cousin Once Removed, director Alan Berliner — Edwin’s titular cousin — dives deep into Edwin’s consciousness, and finds a lively mind that’s still surprisingly capable of expressing profound and complex thoughts, but has a way of shutting down when it becomes convenient. The film is both a character study and a meditation on memory as a defining aspect of self — or not. It’s a brave, clear-eyed look at a life experience that we dread and typically try not to think about.

Berliner has a knack for bringing a formal lightness to his heavy subject matter, using text and typewriter sound effects to create textures and rhythms and add layers of meaning. Edwin is a gifted and charismatic character: “I think of my mind as a thing to play with,” he says, and he seems happiest when Berliner’s young son comes to visit. “Take me for a ride in your story,” he tells him. When Berliner asks Edwin what kind of music he likes he turns on a devilish smile: “Jazzy music!” An interesting characteristic of his memory is that while he no longer recognizes any of his relatives, he vividly recalls the horrific death of his brother, which happened when Edwin was five and his brother was three, and for which his father never stopped blaming him.

One of the tricky aspects of a film like this is consent. One of Edwin’s sisters thinks he shouldn’t be filmed in the state he’s in; that he should be remembered as the vital and powerful man he had been all his life. Other points of view are also expressed, and in the end Berliner tells us that he did obtain consent from Edwin when he was still lucid. Interestingly though, in the cut of the film that played at festivals the consent issue was left more ambiguous, which made the film more uncomfortable and provocative, as viewers were challenged to confront their feelings about its ethics.

For the most part Edwin is portrayed with a suitable degree of dignity. But this breaks down in the film’s final stretch, when it turns out Edwin was not a good father to his two adopted sons. They both had been estranged from him for many years before the onset of his Alzheimer’s. Before revealing all that, Berliner disingenuously asks, “Do you have any advice for me as a parent?” It’s an effective way to set up the dramatic reveal, but it’s also rather a cruel thing to ask — even rather comically so when you find out about Edwin’s Joan Crawford parenting style.

What’s fascinating is that, despite not having any mental recollection of his two sons, Edwin becomes tired or aggressive when Berliner pushes him to examine family photos. When Berliner asks him about the word “love,” Edwin responds that “there’s something there, but I don’t know what to do with it.” Even more dramatically, when Berliner asks him directly about being a bad father Edwin turns to look into the camera: “Maybe. Maybe it’s true. I have no more to say of that.” It suggests questions about the nature of memory, indicating that an aspect of it lingers even when the mind is erased. It brings to mind the concept of a self that maintains the burden of karma after reincarnation, despite losing all memory of a previous life. There’s a sense that on some level Edwin may have chosen to forget. “It sounds as though I’m trying to get rid of something,” he says, “and I am. I have an idea that I don’t like what I want to get rid of.” Berliner prods Edwin to speculate on where memory goes; Edwin replies that “memory goes into the earth; it disappears into a long, unending thing.”

Probably the most memorable scene is the one where Edwin watches a video of his younger self, rattling off his accomplishments. “I’m not impressed,” says present-day Edwin. “He’s trying to be someone.” Here you actually get a sense that, by being stripped of all he had, Edwin has become more authentically who he is. In a larger sense, Berliner’s portrait of Edwin shows us how perhaps the losses we experience in old age — loss of physical ability, of independence, of dignity, of mental faculties, etc. — can be seen as part of a process that brings us full circle at the end of life, taking us back to a state of pure consciousness that has nothing, holds on to nothing.

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