On Saturday night, just before all hell broke loose in the Northeast, Alan Berliner (pictured right) made an appearance at the Maysles Cinema of the Maysles Institute. The event was appropriately called “The Experiment” and I’d say that the experiment was a success. The house was packed with a captive audience as Berliner screened clips and spoke about his process and his relationship with his materials. I am an admirer of Berliner films, and it was obvious I wasn’t the only one Saturday. Attendees seemed to enjoy Berliner’s depth and humor as his walked through different points of his work. From the first circa 1940’s idealized family at the dinner table scene he used that would motivate him to explore family in future work, and what he would become known for, to his incredibly gifted use of sounds and their meanings.
What draws me to Berliner’s films, like many, I’m sure, is his incredibly creative and poignant ability to explore identity through heritage, memory through symbolism such as words and sounds, time in so many layered ways, it’s hard to narrow to a few examples, and of course his repurposing and re-contextualizing of footage to accomplish all this. In my mind’s eye he is a poet the way he can juxtapose seemingly unrelated imagery so perfectly to create a unique but powerful narrative whole. His use of sound and music is as essential as the visual and he seems to have an intimacy with his library that transcends into his finished pieces. Am I overstating his talents? Maybe, but like I said, I admire him as an artist.
Berliner showed clips from most of his best known work (at least most I’m familiar with) in addition to his recent film which premiered at the New York Film Festival this year, First Cousin Once Removed (2012). A story about memory. He also showed a great installation entitled, Playing God, he did commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, using words from The Book of Genesis that would change up with a green "go" button and halt in a new configuration of words making up new and inventive sentences when museum participants hit a "red" stop button. Certain words such as "God" would ignite various video images.
Berliner made two statements that I particularly connected with and funny enough, they seemed to be sort of sidebar comments. Berliner’s grandfather was a tailor and Saturday night he mentioned when he used to work with film, he’d have film strips hanging around his shoulders, working quite literally in a more tactile manner with cutting and gluing strips together, he thought about how he really took after his grandfather. That he, Berliner, is a tailor of sorts too. I can relate from having been a seamstress in a previous life and often consider the parallels between the two professions, tailor/seamstress, filmmaker/editor. I also believe that both lines of work not only are about literal construction but they also construct a narrative, just using different mediums to do so.
The other subject Berliner spoke about that I could very much feel a kinship to is his insomnia. At one point an audience member asked if the filmmaker’s sleep problems (displayed painfully and beautifully in his film Wide Awake, ( 2006 ) - still from film pictured right, interfered in his ability to stay organized. Berliner indicated that his insomnia in fact aided in his ability to be organized. As someone who struggles with sleep, I concur. A side effect of insomnia for me has also been an ability to get more done. Late nights of organizing libraries of small gauge film collections, vinyl filed alphabetically or in some cases, by genre or artist, spreadsheets listing films, photographs and periodical details. If there is something to make a list about, I’m your gal. Insomnia might cause you to not look your best or be as alert and present as you should in the middle of the afternoon, but you should see my shelves and clothing drawers. In fact I’m writing this blog right now because, as Alan Berliner would say, I’m WIDE AWAKE.
As a filmmaker, Berliner noted, the process he enjoyed the most was the time he spent editing and it shows in his work. He spoke several times about his recycling of images from film to film. Whether it be that shot of the family around the dinner table, or an image of a conductor (who he mentioned could possibly represent himself), or the newsmen crouching down on one knee busily snapping photographs, each shot is chosen with extreme care. An audience member asked why he'd continue using the same image of a conductor in more than one of his films when he probably has hundreds or more images of conductors in his library. He assured us, it wasn't due to laziness, but some images call to him to be used again, while others aren't. I have to hand it to Berliner too, his cuts appear both seamless and purposeful.
The evening ran overtime and people wanted to stay as long as the filmmaker would keep going. It was great energy and inspiring to be in the presence of an artist who is so truly emotionally invested in his art and their ingredients.