Alan Berliner at the Virginia Film Festival Chizfilm Movie Reviews
November 15, 2007

Who the Hell Is Alan Berliner?

by Jonathan Chisdes

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.

I immediately set to work researching him and his movies. 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:

“Portrait of the artist as an insomniac” is how the film’s official website
describes this unique, creative, and humorous movie in which filmmaker
Alan Berliner documents his life-long battle with insomnia and explores
the importance of sleep.

Mixing unusual shots—clips of old films of the 40s and 50s, infrared
footage of Berliner trying to sleep, artistic montages of clocks and
cityscapes—with interviews of sleep experts and members of his family,
Berliner crafts a remarkable documentary. We journey with him as he
strains his way through groggy mornings and afternoons, comes wide awake
and energetic in the nights, and then struggles to turn off his overactive
mind and go to sleep at 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. He’s tried
everything, even sleeping pills, and they don’t help all that much.

As for his morning tiredness, he eventually tries coffee. It so stimulates him
that he very excitedly gives a tour of his well-organized collection of films,
photos, sounds, and newspaper clippings. But will he then be able to sleep

His family, who resent that they cannot call him before 11:00am, is not at
all sympathetic. They tell him it is “wrong” to make movies at 5:00am,
despite the fact that he feels he is at his most creative then. As a “night
owl” he contradicts the expert who tells him the human body is designed to
be at its least productive at that hour.

When his son is born, he learns how important sleep is to a baby’s
development and, for the sake of being awake when his son is, finally rebels
against his natural biorhythms. He visits a sleep clinic and consults a
number of experts in an attempt to change himself into a “morning person.”
Yet when he realizes how difficult it will be and suspects that this could
fundamentally change who he is, he’s not sure if he can really go through
with it, as he is torn between love and duty to his family and the fervent
creativity he draws from the night.

Berliner includes some rather personal and intimate moments, including
shots of his pregnant wife, the birth of his son, and private arguments with
family members. But he also steps back to take a scientific look at sleep
and explores the problems of sleep depravation on society.

Although some have criticized this film for being a bit self-indulgent,
Berliner has a wonderful sense of humor and is fun to watch. This is
particularly true when he shows himself making this very film and we get
to watch him edit on his computer and record voice-overs, including takes
he doesn’t like.

This may prove to be the, ahem, sleeper hit of 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 too have all kinds of stuff I have saved from my life. And I can also identify with his “obsessions,” recognizing 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’ll 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; it was 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. Knowing how difficult it is for night owls to get up early, 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 anecdotes 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.

The following night was the big one, when the festival finally screened “Wide Awake.” My sister Judi and I sat right up front. I loved the way Alan introduced the film. He said that usually documentary filmmakers will go in search of a subject, but instead of looking for insomnia patients elsewhere, Alan found the perfect person 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; and when it ended, there was thunderous applause. Unfortunately there was only fifteen 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. Still, the talkback was quite interesting. For one thing, we learned 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 screening, I went up to him and told him this was the third time I had seen this movie 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.

Many people crowded around him and we all talked about issues of sleep, insomnia, and 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, the others left, and it was just me, my sister 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 chilly mall late that night, we spoke a bit more about criticism.

He asked me what I did and I told him about this website and also that I had written for the festival. Then he started asking me questions about what that was like. And the three of us slowly walked and talked about movies and Virginia and Florida, where we used to live, near Orlando. And he was familiar with Rollins, the college from which Judi and I graduated, and the Enzian theatre which we had attended hundreds of times. And then it turned out that he had cousins in central Florida whom Judi and I actually knew! It was just a really wonderful conversation. Not a formal interview; just three people talking about things they have in common.

You know, I’ve been to film festivals before and met filmmakers and an occasional actor and some are more willing than others, after the formal Q&A, to 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. Of the three of us, Alan was clearly the most interesting and the most distinguished—he’s made amazing films that have been shown on national television, he’s premiered at Sundance, he’s gotten hundreds of awards—and yet he made us feel like equals.

And 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 can say with firm assurance that talking to Alan was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had a film festival. He’s not only a great filmmaker, but also a great human being. Hmmm… Perhaps that’s why his films are so impressive. Or it is the other way around?

Return to Chizfilm Movie Reviews