The first time I heard of Alan Berliner was five or six years ago, when I was flipping channels one evening and chanced upon the movie “The Sweetest Sound.” In this movie, the filmmaker had searched for every person on the planet whose name was the same as his, Alan Berliner, and invited them for dinner. They explored what makes them unique, what makes them similar, and how everyone on the planet is interrelated in some way. It was done in a very creative style and with a touch of wry humor. I was quite impressed, but I never saw the movie again, nor did I hear of any other film by Berliner, and so nearly forgot about him.
Fast forward to last July. I had just been hired by the Virginia Film Festival as a writer and was attending my first meeting of the writing staff. Sean, the lead writer, passed around a sheet with the names of a dozen directors who were, or hopefully soon would be, booked for the festival and asked us if there was anyone we wished to be responsible for. I looked down that list and, quite frankly, didn’t recognize a single name … except one. Alan Berliner. I suddenly remembered how much I had enjoyed “The Sweetest Sound.” So I volunteered to be responsible for the write-ups of the three Berliner movies that would play at the festival, as well as a biography of him.
So I immediately set to work researching him and his movies (as well as the other films I was assigned). The three Berliner movies which the VFF would show were “Family Album,” “Nobody’s Business,” and “Wide Awake.” The first two were unavailable for the writing committee, so I had to craft my blurbs based on press materials and reviews other people had written. But I was able to get a hold of “Wide Awake,” his most recent film, and I eagerly popped it into my DVD player the day I got it.
Quite frankly, the film blew me away. And the first thing I did after I finished watching it was watch it again a second time. That’s how much I liked it. Here is what I wrote and submitted (before it was edited down by the festival):
I related to this movie on so many levels. Even though I’m not an insomniac like Alan, I am a night owl and I can really appreciate someone who gets their energy at nighttime. And I’ve experienced prejudice by morning persons on this; I’ve been spoken to as if it were a character flaw or even immoral. Also I relate to Alan collecting all kinds of things like movies and photos and newspaper clippings. I don’t collect as much as he has, but I have three overflowing file cabinets of all kinds of stuff I have saved from my life—and a lot of them are newspaper clippings of stories and things which have interested me. I doubt my mind is anywhere near as “overactive” as his, but it is constantly going and I can identify with his “obsessions.” And I realize of course that these “obsessions” are really the raw material which might be made into future art, just as much of what I have saved might someday be something I write about.
Plus the film, as a serious documentary, made me really think about sleep as an important issue. In the scene with his mother and sister and wife, one of them says that most people don’t think about sleep and Alan responds, “It’s one of the most important things.” Sure, I have thought about sleep before, but I never realized just how important it is until I saw this film. It made me realize that we spend one third of our lives sleeping and there’s damn good reason for that. Sleep depravation can cause really serious problems.
But on an even more important level, this film moved me as a work of art. So masterfully and skillfully put together. I loved the old clips which metaphorically illustrate a point, I loved the montages, I loved the sense of humor, I loved how personal and open Alan was willing to be about his own peculiarities. And I loved him showing himself making the movie, such as using several takes for voice-overs. This guy knows how to make a documentary into art.
So you can imagine how eagerly I was looking forward to seeing this movie again at the festival, as well as Berliner’s other two movies, and possibly even meeting him. Time dragged and I thought November would never get here.
Alan’s first film, “Family Album,” is the one that made him, back in 1986. Based on my research, I learned that this experimental documentary was complied from 16mm home movies of more than 60 different families. This collage of sounds and images of family life was excellently edited together to create an intimate portrait of the American Family, from the 1920s to the 1950s, charting the historical evolution of the family and offering an insightful perspective on life.
I really wanted to go see this, but some joker at the festival had scheduled it for 10:00am. And like Alan, I don’t do mornings unless it is an actual, serious emergency, which this doesn’t quite qualify as. Knowing how difficult it is for night owls to get up early in the morning, I felt sorry for Alan. Though I didn’t have to go, he did.
So instead of attending “Family Album,” the first Berliner movie I got to at the festival was “Nobody’s Business,” which was made in 1996. In this film, Alan attempts to interview his reluctant father Oscar, in order to understand himself and where he comes from. Alan questions his father about his life, about his family history, and about his divorce from Alan’s mother, but the old curmudgeon will have none of it. Oscar insists that his life is ordinary, unimportant, and can see no value in the project, insisting his life is nobody’s business. Hilariously cranky, Oscar resists his son’s movie with colorful language, but Alan keeps whittling away and eventually the past is brought to light in this loving but combative father-son dialogue.
When Alan got to speak, we learned an interesting coincidence: that exact date, November 1, 2007, would have been his father’s 90th birthday if he were still alive.
The talkback was really interesting. Alan spoke about the irony of Oscar’s resistance to telling his life story being more interesting than his actual life’s story. He also talked about Oscar’s reaction after the film came out and told several stories about that. I was impressed that Alan spoke so passionately about this eleven year old movie, as if he made it only yesterday. I half expected he’d phone it in; after all, he’s been showing this same movie over and over for eleven years and been asked the same questions again and again. But eleven years later, it was still vastly important to him.
When I was finally able to ask a question, I asked him how long it took to make and how much it cost. He responded to cost first saying “I have no idea.” I said, “You didn’t have a budget?” He said, “Oh sure, there was a budget. It’s just it was so long ago I’ve completely forgotten.” And then as to the time, he said it took two years to make. And it’s only 60 minutes long. And the talkback itself lasted 45 minutes—nearly as long as the movie itself.
The following night was the really big one. That was when the festival finally screened “Wide Awake,” which I had been eagerly awaiting. Judi and I sat right up front. I loved the way Alan introduced the film. I wish I could remember word-for-word what he said, but essentially the way he put it was that usually documentary filmmakers will go in search of a subject. But instead of looking for insomnia patients elsewhere, Alan found the perfect subject who would cooperate with him, give him total access, let him into his bedroom to watch him sleep, and give him whatever he needed for the film. He could examine the subject of insomnia not from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking out, and I really liked the way he put that.
So the movie blew me away again. Each time I see it, it gets better and better. Such creative and skillful editing, such a wonderful sense of humor, and just the right amount of serious scientific data. And Judi loved it too; she was so glad I had taken her to see it.
When it ended, there were thunderous applause, but unfortunately there was only 15 minutes for the talkback and I didn’t get a chance to ask a question. Probably just as well, I figured, because I had 100 questions I’d have liked to ask and if I could only pick one I wouldn’t know which one to ask. But the talkback was interesting. For one thing, we learned that Alan did not end up doing what was suggested in the film which was behavior modification. He admitted that he was just too resistant to the change. The other thing we learned was that he missed the intro to his screening of “Family Album” at 10am that morning. Well, what do you know!
As we were all walking out of the theatre, I went up to him and told him this was the third time I had seen this movie (he seemed impressed by that) and how much I admired his powerful and energetic editing skills. I asked him if he ever gets asked to edit films by other filmmakers and he said yes. And he used to take them up on that, but doesn’t do so anymore. He will however consult and offer advice.
Then others crowded around and I didn’t have much of a chance of a follow-up. Still, I hung out and listened to him talk to a few other people about issues of sleep and insomnia. Judi diligently stood by me, listening. I tried to interject a thought or two. When they talked about the scene in the kitchen with the mother, sister, and wife, I spoke how I thought that scene was excellent in capturing the prejudice against night owls and I spoke about my sister Sarah who is prejudice against night owls.
At one point, a man saw this group of us gathered around Alan listening to every syllable he said as if it were the word of God, and he came up to me (because I was slightly away from the group) and asked, “Who’s he? Is he someone important?” I said, somewhat proudly, “Yes, that’s Alan Berliner, the famous filmmaker.” And the man looked at me strangely as if to say, “Who the hell is Alan Berliner?” and then took off.
Eventually we all walked out of the theatre and the others left and finally it was just me, Judi, and Alan. I didn’t want to take up his time and pester him, but I had to ask one more question. I asked about the criticism which called this movie “self-indulgent.” I pointed out that so many artists and comedians and other people put the focus on themselves and don’t get criticized for being “self indulgent,” and I wanted to know what his response was. He said he basically ignores it. As we walked down the mall, in the near-freezing cold (upper 30s) we spoke a bit more about criticism and how he doesn’t get too critical looking back on previous films.
Then he asked me what I did and I told him and gave him my card and I also told him that I had written ten blurbs for the festival. Then he started asking me questions about what it was like to work for the festival as a writer and if I got to choose which films to write about. And we just talked, and walked, like people. It was just so cool he was asking me and Judi questions—like we were worth knowing about, when he’s really the interesting guy who’s made amazing films that have been shown on TV and gone to Sundance and gotten hundreds of awards. It was flattering.
He asked Judi and me why we moved to Charlottesville and I told him briefly and that we had lived in Florida. And when he asked where in Florida and we told him he said he knew Winter Park. And the Enzian theatre. I told him I’d been in the Enzian hundreds of times and went to college in Winter Park—we both did—and he knew Rollins, where both Judi and I had attended.
And then he said he had cousins in Orlando and said, “I’ll tell you their names just in case you know them.” And I thought to myself, “Yea, right, there’s a million people in Orlando, I’m sure I won’t know his cousins.” And he said their names and OMG! Yes, we did know them. They went to the same synagogue my family attended in the late 80s and early 90s, and one of his cousins was actually our travel agent. What a fantastic coincidence. A small world.
You know, I’ve been to film festivals before and met filmmakers and an occasional actor and some are more willing than others to, after the formal Q&A, endure your questions and talk to you, but I’d never encountered one who was willing to talk back to you, ask you questions and show as much interest in you as you in them. It wasn’t a formal interview, it was just people talking to each other as equals about the things that interest them. That in itself made me hold Alan in so much more esteem, even higher than before I met him. I’ve heard many stories of people meeting their idol and being let down, but I’ve heard very few of someone meeting their idol and becoming even more impressed.
I shook his hand and said goodbye and what a real pleasure it was to meet him. He went back to his hotel (he had a flight in the morning) and Judi and I went back to my car. I was on such a high after that. It was an amazing night with an amazing man. And I can say with firm assurance that talking to Alan was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had a film festival.
Alan doesn’t know yet what his next project will be, but I can hardly wait to see it when it’s done.
Coming tomorrow: some final thoughts on the festival.