In the beginning of Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed, a documentary portrait of the director’s eponymous relation, a former scholar now in the throes of Alzheimer’s, several voices address the propriety of the project. While Berliner himself defends the choice to film someone in a state of advanced dementia as a chance to explore memory, and his chief subject, Edwin Honig, gives on-camera consent (though it isn’t clear he knows what he’s consenting to), a lone voice on the soundtrack belonging to the director’s sister expresses a dissenting opinion, wishing her brother wouldn’t pursue this dubious line of inquiry.
But pursue it he does, never looking back after this initial and brief period of questioning. Berliner uses a variety of techniques to present his subject, from thudding, if undeniably affecting, cross-cutting between video of the sharp-witted poet and translator in his prime and the empty man sitting in front of us, to a series of image-and-word streams that flash past the viewer and mimic Honig’s scattered rememberings. But none of these methods really addresses the director’s central quandary, his supposed inquiry into the way memory operates. As a result, we’re left with a dying, drooling 90-year-old man whose continual failures to recognize the people and objects that Berliner presents him with make the film feel like a depressingly fruitless, borderline-exploitative exercise.
Complicating the film’s portrait is the fact that Honig has his lucid moments, or at least instances of relative clear-headedness. But even these are milked by Berliner for highly questionable motives, namely to show that the poet behind the disease is still operative and to take empty, if pleasing, utterances by the Alzheimer’s-addled subject as lyrical declarations of great import. “Remember to forget” is Honig’s parting advice, a phrase that sounds good, but means little. That Berliner hasn’t dug any deeper on the question of memory means that this bit of doggerel, which would surely be embarrassing to the pre-Alzheimer’s poet, stands as the film’s final word on its ostensible subject matter as well.
Awash in painfully repetitious sound effects like the endless clacking of a typewriter, with the irritating punctuation of the enter key’s high-pitched clang, and “experimental” visuals to enliven the otherwise pedestrian camerawork (the concept of “forgetting” is represented via abstract images that look like film decay or Stan Brakhage’s less happy inventions), the film finally comes down to a portrait of a man in the throes of advanced dementia who seems to have no idea what’s going on in front of him most of the time. But so long as he continues to recite “poetry,” he’s treated not merely as a helpless subject, but a fit object for Berliner’s relentless camera.