In the Name of the Father

Alan Berliner takes a stab at a new family of cinema with 'The Sweetest Sound'
Alan Berliner

You're in a world of trouble, Alan Berliner. Do you have any idea how angry I am? Let me rephrase that. Alan Berliner: I frankly doubt you are capable of fathoming the artery-exploding fury I'm feeling toward you right now. Because the thing is, it's not just anger boiling inside me. I'm going to reveal the secret ingredient in my special fury sauce, and that's hurt.

Reader, it's no doubt apparent to you that Mr. Berliner and I have a beef to work out that's so rank and wild with his insults (and my righteousness) that I should probably call it beefalo to distinguish it from its tame domestic cousin. I'd like nothing better than to cleanse myself of it right here. But the fact is that Dickens couldn't chronicle the hundred-year grudge match of Bleak House in a single paragraph. And so I'm afraid a little background will be required for you to appreciate the wrong that Berliner has done me.

Alan Berliner probably thinks he can get away with his insult because he happens to be a brilliant documentary filmmaker. But at his core, this native New Yorker has shown himself to be a brawler. For evidence of this, I recommend watching his 1996 film Nobody's Business, which is screening Wednesday, April 24 as part of the artist's residency at the Walker Art Center. Berliner's sparring partner in this masterful film is none other than his own father Oscar.

Though some 75 years old at the time the film was shot, Oscar Berliner can still go toe to toe. That Berliner intends to explore his father's life does not mean that Oscar has signed on to the program. In fact, he announces from the opening moments of the film that he finds the idea preposterous.

"You're trying to make something of nothing," Oscar pronounces in his belligerent, adenoidal tenor.

"You're my father," Berliner replies--his own voice rising half an octave into the register more familiar to adolescents who have been deprived of their television privileges. "I have to do it."

"Alan, you're going to do what you want to do whether I want you to do it or don't want you to do it. I'm telling you you're wasting your time."

The fact that Berliner goes on to prove his father wrong is not a stain on the old man's stubbornness. Where Berliner brings the enthusiasm of an Ellis Island tour guide to the topic of his family tree, Oscar's apathy stretches to nihilistic extremes. Or as Oscar responds to his son's musings on genealogy and destiny, "You're boring the shit out of me."

Fortunately, as a filmmaker, Berliner is flatly incapable of being boring. The talking head--the bane of the documentary--is only a minor player in a Berliner film. Instead, the screen pulses with home movies, found film, stock footage, abstract graphics, and ambient sounds. These elements are constantly commenting on the narrative of the story, constructing a language of metaphors. They also serve as an organizing device, a visual grammar. For instance, the sound of instruments being tuned announces new topics in Nobody's Business, as if an orchestra were preparing for the next movement of a symphony.

Likewise, the tapping of a typewriter and the bing of the carriage return punctuate the images of Berliner's Intimate Stranger (1991), which will be screening back-to-back with Nobody's Business. This audio element is well suited to the life of Joseph Cassuto, Alan Berliner's maternal grandfather, who wrote of his unusual life in an unpublished autobiography. ("Who the hell was he to write an autobiography," jabs his ex-son-in-law Oscar with characteristic hostility. "And who in the hell would be interested in it?")

A Sephardic cotton trader of Palestinian birth, Cassuto left more documents behind than your average senator might, and more celluloid footage than a mid-level movie star. He preserved--and carbon-copied--every letter he ever wrote. And he had a singular talent for stealing attention in snapshots. As his sons recall in voiceover, Cassuto could almost always be spotted smack in the center of the picture. When he allowed himself to be relegated to the edge of the crowd, it didn't mean he was ready to become part of the scenery. Consider the large group photo of Alexandria's most prominent Zionists--its leading merchants, the chief rabbis, the governor--dressed in somber black suits, joined by a single dapper gentleman (Cassuto, of course) wearing white.

That's not a bad metaphor for the tone of Intimate Stranger as a whole, which sees Cassuto striving to own the spotlight in public. At home, though, this performer could have used an enthusiastic understudy. Having moved to the U.S. after WWII, he all but abandoned his family to work 11 months a year in Japan.

As it leaps from continent to continent and decade to decade, Intimate Stranger crackles with the visual and aural energy of a great title sequence--say, the pre-credit montage of Seven, or The Island of Dr. Moreau. Put another way, after watching one of Berliner's kinetic essays, your conventional documentary (hello, Ken Burns!) literally feels like half a movie. You may find yourself wishing this unique cinematic talent would try his hand at feature filmmaking: How his supersaturated style would mesh with dramatic dialogue is intriguing to imagine. But then this desire--with its cash-register overtones--might be the equivalent of wishing a grandmaster at chess would finally devote his attentions to something worthwhile, like developing a winning system for blackjack.

Which, now that I mention it, may not be beyond Alan Berliner's abilities. A glance at his multimedia installation The Language of Names, at the Walker through August 18, suggests that Berliner has a knack for running through anagrams and permutations. A look at this exhibit, which is a complement to Berliner's latest film The Sweetest Sound, will also reveal the grievous injury that could definitely lead to an Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton type of situation between him and me--but more on that later.

The Sweetest Sound (screening Friday, April 26) makes up the third panel of Berliner's triptych, the journey across generations having deposited the filmmaker at the street address of his own navel. "My parents probably thought of my name as their very first gift to me," Berliner says at the outset. "I see it as the very first of their decisions they would make without asking me."

What follows is a comic meditation on names and identity that reaches its apex with the filmmaker hosting a dinner party for 12 other men named Alan Berliner. A bit lighter in subject and looser-limbed in organization, The Sweetest Sound sometimes feels a little too sweet. Berliner's father died last August, and it's hard not to miss his mordant and all-encompassing skepticism (though Oscar makes a cameo). But there's a hard nugget of egotism at the center of this project that rings shamefully true. When Berliner asks a stylish, middle-aged woman named Iris, "What's wrong with sharing your name?" she nails the answer: "Well, sharing, I would think, is what's wrong with it."

In the spirit of further exploring the meaning of names, Berliner has created an original wall text at the back of the Walker lobby. There, he's drafted a 25-foot-by-8 foot list of 18,000 distinct surnames representing people who live within three miles of the museum. Burxvoort is here, and so is Baago, and Phagoo and Windschill and Quackenbush, too.

You can imagine the enthusiasm I felt, then, when I surveyed this piece for the first time, and scanned down the list for the name you see in the byline above. Which is, all modesty aside, a totally stellar one. I made my way from Torstenson to Tortice, and then to Torvik. And then I scoured the text again. And again. There was something missing--my own sweetest sound.

And so I ask you now, Alan Berliner, for the sacred honor of my patrimony and for Tortorellos yet to come: Where the hell is my family name?

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >