Alzheimer’s is one of the most tragic diseases for a creative person. While physically painless, the dementia and memory loss are dreadful impairments that no mind should have to bear, and that seems to be especially the case for celebrated artistic minds like that of Edwin Honig. The late poet and critic is the subject of a new documentary by Alan Berliner, the renowned maker of deeply personal experimental nonfiction films. Previous works of his include An Intimate Stranger, which focuses on his maternal grandfather, and Nobody’s Business, which is about his father. His relationship to Honig is directly spelled out in the new doc’s title, First Cousin Once Removed.
In addition to that familial bond, though, Berliner considers his mother’s cousin to be his mentor and friend; Honig’s estranged adopted kids meanwhile imply that the filmmaker was treated more like a son than they each were. Making the subject matter even more subjectively relevant is the fact that Berliner’s father and paternal grandfather both suffered from dementia. So, surely this film is as much to do with the director facing his own fear that he too will one day lose cognition. It’s also his second go at the subject, as First Cousin Once Removed is an expansion of his 2010 short, Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s.
One thing the film is not is a documentary about the disease. There is no explanation of what Alzheimer’s is or what it does, and while Berliner sets us up to expect a common example of its effects on both someone suffering from it and their loved ones, First Cousin Once Removed is a very specific portrait of Honig during his deterioration. But not a linear look. The film consists of a handful of visits (“interview” doesn’t really apply) shot over five years, intercut to present answers to the same questions at different points, occasionally in quick succession such as when he’s asked for simple things like the name of the filmmaker or the president.
In the film, Berliner tells the man that it could be a powerful way to help teach people what memory means. It doesn’t go that far either (see fellow personal essayist Ross McElwee’s new documentary, Photographic Memory, for something closer to that effect), but it certainly touches on the notion that a brilliant mind such as Honig’s may remain a clever and wonderfully expressive tool, all the while devastatingly reminding us that he can no longer appreciate or remember every bon mot recited for the camera. “I might have wakened,” Honig says at one point when Berliner tells him he dozed off. “And you were asleep.”
The poet in him remains, apparently, as parts of his mind are failing, and First Cousin Once Removed functions as a continued outlet for Honig’s expression in his final years, when he can no longer put his thoughts and words to paper let alone a whole book. Is capturing a portrait of an artist in mental and emotional decline fair to him and his legacy? Among the film’s interviews with family and friends is the early-on opinion of Honig’s sister, Lila, that the project is demeaning to the great man he once was. To her, this is not a portrait of Honig. And other people won’t visit, as if he’s already dead. He definitely can’t reflect on his life nor apologize to those he hurt. So, is he indeed no longer a man? And therefore no longer a real artist? Or the man; and the artist?
The question of decency here is made difficult by Honig’s level of recognition, because as a known and even knighted figure he might be worthy of further focus, yet one might also feel he should therefore be protected from it. At least Berliner expectantly crafts a compassionate and intimate film, shooting most of Honig’s moments in close-up, likely because of their usual friendly proximity, and treading carefully and courteously through the inquiries. You can see a colder approach in other documentaries involving this and other diseases of age, such as the recent film The Patron Saints, which presents residents of a hospital for the disabled elderly, none of which could have properly given consent.
Another new documentary more akin to what Berliner does with First Cousin Once Removed is Jonathan Caouette’s Walk Away Renee. A sort of sequel to his better-known earlier work, Tarnation, Renee again looks at the filmmaker’s mother, this time making more of an effort to visualize her mental illness. Berliner’s own experimental touches fittingly go from being witty and poetic to distressing and turbulent, a mix of straight biography and loving profile with harsh editing and sound design choices, albeit never in a way that’s inaccessible or difficult for the audience.
If there’s anything left to the desire of viewers in the end, though, it’s a lack of sufficient footage of Honig when he was in better health. Was he as playful with words in normal company then as he is in his final years? Likely the moments in which he spouts a good amount absurd nonsense and gibberish are the effect of the disease, but those of us who are unfamiliar with the poet can’t know for sure. A linear tracking would be more helpful to the audience and considerate to the subject, because it is a pretty rough way to be introduced to someone.
As a first impression, we can neither immediately comprehend the extent of damage nor shake the image of Honig’s affliction once we eventually get a glimpse and feel for the great man he once was. It is easy to side with Lila on the problem of the film in that regard. And if we’re to be thinking about memory, we should consider that we will probably now remember Honig more for his Alzheimer’s than for his healthy life’s work. Is this bad? The one person who can truly answer is no longer with us, and hadn’t been for a number of years.
The Upside: There are surprisingly a lot of good times had with and delightful statements from the otherwise tragic figure.
The Downside: Obviously the subject matter can be rather depressing at times, as well.
On the Side: Daniel Hughes’s description of Honig in the “Dictionary of Literary Biography” fits the film very well: “No poet of our time has more fiercely presented man’s tragic morality even as he finds an impressive variety of means by which that morality is admitted and sublimed.”
First Cousin Once Removed is an HBO Documentary Films release and will air on the cable channel sometime in 2013.