What “once removes” film diarist-documentarian Alan Berliner from his close friend and elder cousin, noted professor/poet/translator Edwin Honig, is Alzheimer’s. Early in the pic, Honig’s sister questions Berliner’s motives, wondering whether it’s ethical to constantly confront an Alzheimer’s patient with his own memory loss simply to make a movie. The result, however, is a fascinatingly fractured glimpse into a disengaged mind and a biopic-in-reverse of its subject, quite unlike any documentary seen before. Skedded for a late 2013 HBO airing, this meditative, time-shuffling film seems ripe for niche arthouse play.
The docu opens with a montage of the same action repeated numerous times: The filmmaker emerges from an elevator and knocks at Honig’s door. His arrival elicits a different response each time, ranging from pleased recognition to confused half-remembrance to flat-out denial of any knowledge of the visitor. These rhythmic reprisals color the film, as Berliner returns again and again over a long period, to find Honig at different stages of the disease and with varying degrees of awareness of what’s around him.
Deftly edited segments show Honig answering the same question over various months and years, reacting only slightly differently each time, but always as if he never heard the question before; these moments play like scenes from a grimly sober version of “Groundhog Day.”
Honig exists in a perpetual present where fragments from the past, dredged up by the filmmaker’s words, old photographs or unearthed knickknacks trigger fleeting lucidity or oddball lyricism. Sometimes the would-be catalysts produce nothing. Trauma and guilt, on the other hand, have deep roots: The tragic death of Honig’s brother Stanley constantly resurfaces in various scrambled utterances..
The docu establishes a dialectic between the brilliant academician that Honig’s friends, relatives and ex-students knew, and the man he has become in his piecemeal relationship to the past. (“Once upon a time, I was an interesting fellow,” he says.) Covers of books and a lengthy, typed-out bibliography of translated and original works (ironically, much of Honig’s poetry dealt with time and memory) conjure up a wordsmith whose ghost persists in catchy, nonsensical rhymes and inarticulate sound-bursts of a certain musicality.
The helmer adds bullet-points to Honig’s lost memories: the sound of clacking typewriter keys punctuates successions of photographs, stray thoughts or lines of poetry. Berliner asks Honig if he can repeat three words in order — “chair,” “tree,” “bird” — and these mnemonic devices become leitmotifs of the film, as Honig sits in his chair watching the leaves change through the seasons, birds heard in the distance.
Berliner is a past master of montage, here endlessly manipulating black-and-white images from Honig’s irretrievable past. And since, it is disclosed, the director’s father and many of his male relatives suffered from the same disease as Honig, Berliner might well be exploring his own future.