Dir: Alan Berliner
60 min., 16mm, 1:1.37, Color, EP
Produktion: Cine-Matrix. Kamera: Alan Berliner, Phil Abraham, David. W. Leitner. Schnitt: Alan Berliner.
Uraufführung: 8. 10. 1996, New York Film Festival.
Weltvertrieb: Jane Balfour Films, Burghley House, 35 Fortress Road, London NW5 1AD, Großbritannien. Tel.: (44-171) 267 5392, Fax: (44-171) 267 4241.
Sat 15.02. 14:00 Delphi Sat 15.02. 21:00 Kino 7 im Zoo Palast Sun 16.02. 20:00 Arsenal Mon 17.02. 12:00 Akademie der Künste
A follow-up to Alan Berliner's previous film Intimate Stranger, NOBODY'S BUSINESS explores the other half of his familial heritage - the Berliners. Using both his nuclear and extended family as a kind of living laboratory, Berliner attemps to unravel the mysteries of family history, genealogy and heredity. By transforming the private and personal into a story of universal resonance, NOBODY'S BUSINESS will touch every viewer with a warm shock of recognition.
(...) Those familiar with his early portrait of his grandfather, Intimate Stranger, were prepared for the telling of family secrets, artfully organized. This time he goes after his reclusive, stoical, bitter, taciturn father. The first efforts are comic, like trying to get a stone to speak. The father refuses to see why his story would interest anyone else.
Undaunted, the filmmaker-son confronts him with a variety of strategies (research into family roots, tough probes about the parents' divorce) to get him to open up. The purpose is both aesthetic and personal: to find the meaning of this man's life by transmuting it into artistically tellable form, and to have a long-deferred heart-to-heart talk with his father.
The generosity of Berliner is that the oedipal struggle is both acknowledged (cutaways in prizefights) and worked through: this son does not want to ,slay' his father so much as to get him off the mat to go a few more rounds. What initially seems like a one-sided fight (verbal artist in the prime of life versus old man about to shut down) generates immense perverse sympathy for this difficult old man. Triangulating the dynamic is the filmmaker's sister Lynn, who brings a caring analysis to all the family members (including their bombshell of a mother), while acknowledging that her father's capacity to love has dried up. Miraculously, her judgement proves wrong, when the father is seen doting near the end on his new grandchild.
I know no one working in personal films today who can do so well what Alan Berliner does: bring dramatically alive the intense agony and ambivalence and love within families. His dazzling technical mastery of the relation between sound and image is always kept in the service of deep psychological truths.
(Philip Lopate, in: Film Comment, N. Y., Nov./Dec. 1996)
(...) Pic's central thread, and an inexhaustable comic reservoir, is Oscar's feisty contrarian and sarcastic attitude toward his son's effort to chronicle his life.
The two are heard discussing the film even as Alan narrates it, and Oscar's scoffing and derogation are constant. Nobody could possibly care about a life as ordinary as his, he maintains, though in words that are far more scarbrous and colorful.
When Alan brings out maps and documents his research has uncovered regarding the Polish village where his grandparents were born, Oscar says he couldn't be less interested. Alan seems incredulous that the family's origins could be of absolutely no concern to his father, but Oscar remains as adamant on this subject as he does on many others: If it's of no immediate use to him, it can go to hell.
Despite such salty protestations, pic easily wins its implicit argument that no life is insignificant. (...) His experience has a fascinating richness that spans many of the century's big themes, from the immigration of European Jews to America, to World War II and the Holocaust, to the loneliness that can befall people amid outward prosperity and success.
The son brings considerable visual snap to his father's tale, employing fast cutting, stop-motion and stylized graphics, while incorporating interviews with his mother, sister and various cousins, as well as old photos and home movies.
Looking at yellowed stills, Oscar recalls that his immigrant father was a cold, unemotional man who left the affectionate side of child rearing to his wife. Other photos show a handsome teenage Oscar cavorting with buddies and young women while in naval training for World War II; in unequivocal tones, he recalls this as the happiest time of his life.
Oscar's old 8mm footage, showing the Berliners as an archetypal nuclear family of the 50s, provokes the one incident in which his verbal barrage suddenly stops. Alan asks why he took the home movies, and his father literally can't say.
Yet the non-response speaks volumes about his pained regrets over marrying an arty, vivacious European woman who bore him two children but soon felt trapped in the marriage and only stayed, through several strained, unhappy years, for the sake of the kids. (...)
Alan evidently intended it not only as a way of understanding himself through understanding Oscar, but also as a way of reaching out to his father in his final years.
Such a gesture may not stand much of a chance against a lifetime of emotional reserve, yet pic buries that poignancy in a final and fitting bit of hilarity: Over the end credits, Oscar chides Alan for being a filmmaker rather that an accountant.
(Godfrey Cheshire, in: Variety, New York, October 21-27, 1996)
(...) "There is a general sense that Alan Berliner has figured out the family documentary form," says Jack Salzman, media director at the Jewish Museum (...). "He really does explore family relations in an energetic, vital way. Alan manages to impose his presence and voice on the film, without getting narcissistic."
How do Mr. Berliner explorations manage to evade the pitfalls of the family film? For starters, they are dramatically tight (each no more than an hour long); they are full of juicy conflict and contradiction, innovative in their cinematic technique, unpredictable in their structures, and they spring from a high degree of preliminary analysis. This is cooked, not raw, material.
"Alan Berliner represents to me the most exiting breakthrough out of the impasse of the family film," says Richard Peņa, programm director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. "Most documentaries end up planting the camera and waiting for something to happen. With Berliner, one sees a much more playful thought process at work."
Mr. Peņa compare Intimate Strangers, with its own multiple, contradictory narrators, to Citizen Kane. Mr. Berliner agrees that Citizen Kane was an influence. The point is that Mr. Berliner's storytelling may have more in common with the subjective psychologie of characters in fiction films, than with the traditional documentary's display of fact as objective truth.
(Phillip Lopate, in: The New York Times, January 12, 1997)
Mitch Albert: Why was it important to you to make this film?
Alan Berliner: So much of my father's life has been a mystery to me. I've always needed to know why he's chosen to live the way he's living - reclusive, pessimistic and cynical about life. It's been difficult for me to accept. But I could never change him, could never affect him, or even infect him with my own enthusiasm, no matter how hard I tried. Whether they are alive or dead, our parents send us messages about life; consciously or unconsciously those messages become a part of who we are.
M.A.: What were some of your father's messages?
A.B.: That the misfortunes of his life had overtaken him. That he had somehow become a victim of circumstances. My father has so often said to me that he's ,in the autumn of his life,' ,that his future was behind him,' that he doesn't have long to live. I've been hearing this for the last 15 years or more. In the film I challenge him about his negativity, about the fact that he's alone all the time or that he doesn't have any friends. These are difficult subjects to talk about with a parent, but they have been troubling me for a very long time. In the end, I suppose it was mutually courageous - as much for me to ask them as it was for him to answer them.
M.A.: Did you ever think that he might not want to participate in a film about his own life?
A.B.: Remember, his history is also a part of my history. There are things that only he knows and that only he can tell me. About both of our lives. Despite his adamant disbelief in the value of a biography about his life, he understood that my explorations into our family history were absolutely necessary for me. I suppose, in some way, by agreeing to cooperate, he was once again after all these years, helping me with my homework. Maybe that made him feel good, feel needed. In another sense we became partners in making the film. One of the reviewers refers to the film as a ,verbal slapstick duet,' as if our conversations were a kind of comedy routine. I think there's a strong element of that, but at the same time we were in absolutely serious emotional territory. There were many things he did not want to discuss, and at several points during the interviews he threatened to take the microphone off and walk away. But he never did. He never walked away.
M.A.: What topics didn't he want to discuss?
A.B.: Mostly questions surrounding his marriage to my mother, the reasons for their divorce and the effects of the divorce on the rest of his life. In general, his disinclination to talk reflected his own modest sense of himself. As he says in the film, ,I got married, I raised a family, worked hard, had my own business, that's all. That's nothing to make a picture about.' The integrity and consistency of his indifference was remarkable to me. After I tell him ,The more you say you're not interested, the more it makes me want to change your mind,' he responds by saying, ,You have one bad habit. You think if something's important to you, it's got to be important to everybody else,' and warns me that the film will be a flop if I don't heed his advice. That establishes the polemic of the film: my romanticism versus his stoicism.
M.A.: Did you have in mind to portray him in any specific ways?
A.B.: No. I never work like that. I always let the subject come to me. I wanted to let him generate the pieces that would form the puzzle. To let him be exactly who he is.
M.A.: You perform quite a balancing act in the film: never too much outside nor inside.
A.B.: There's a part of me that wanted to protect him, yet I knew that if the film was going to be meaningful to viewers, I had to place our relationship outside of the safe harbor of sentimentality, and throw us out onto the high seas where real multi-dimensional characters live. Where, if you will, fictional characters live. There's no protection out there. For either of us. People project all sorts of things upon you. That's one of the risks of personal filmmaking.
M.A.: Why did you choose to use the boxing match as a recurring motif?
A.B.: My father and I have a long history of contentiousness. I wanted to use the prize fighting scenes to both acknowledge the Oedipal drama of our relationship and at the same time place it in a universally humorous context as a kind of ,verbal sparring.' You'll notice that there are no knockouts in the boxing footage, just a lot of punching back and forth. And so it is on the soundtrack. Despite the fact that as filmmaker I have ultimate control, I was careful to include several of my father's verbal put-downs and admonishments of me. For instance, when I'm asking him about his divorce, he declares that I have ,a lack of understanding... a lack of sympathy... a lack of empathy... a lack of feeling... for what this means to him. It's very important to me that my father wins his share of the arguments. Ironically, to continue the metaphor, my father is ,the champion.' I am very much ,the challenger.'
M.A.: Can you speak about the scenes depicting a typical day in his life?
A.B.: For a long period of time, I had asked him repeatedly to share the details of how he spends a typical day. He continually refused. Then suddenly, one day he said yes. I was awestruck at finally getting him to open a window that had been closed to me for so long. I still find it one of the most moving parts of the film, and the one that I had the most difficulty editing. He's most vulnerable at that point in the film.
M.A.: How did you negotiate the alternating humor and pain that pervades the film?
A.B.: Initially his protestations about our family history are funny. At some point though, the levity takes on a darker shading when you realize that his attitude is grounded in his sad existential predicament; that he is a man who is quite isolated and who has been wounded by life. To this day I remain haunted by his response that ,time doesn't always heal.' Even though I probably agree with him, no one had ever said that to me before. And when a parent says it, it takes on an even deeper significance.
M.A.: That disclosure of private pain boosts our ability to empathize with him.
A.B.: Yes. Then you understand where all of his resistance comes from - that he's not intending to be funny, which, ironically, frees you up to laugh again. Having articulated his emotional and physical pain, he begins to grow as a character. It provides him with a certain dignity and courage.
M.A.: Towards the end of the film, you connect Oscar quite ingeniously to the human family he shuns.
A.B.: My father is always quick to say that he's ,one of billions of people' -ordinary, average and unremarkable. He likes to hide in this large rhetorical crowd. Many professional genealogists believe that most people in the world - of whatever race, nationality, or ethnicity - are much more closely related than people seem to realize, perhaps no further than 50th cousin. It's an idea that has always fascinated me, and I wanted to use my father - as a single human being - to be the key that opens the door to this larger genealogical theme.
M.A.: How fully had you mapped out this strategy of connecting your father to those broader genealogical questions?
A.B.: When I visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, where 3000 people come from all over the world each day, I realized that there's an intense international preoccupation with family history and genealogy. For everyone, that is, except my father. He refuses to be related to anyone he does not or did not know - living or dead - whether they might actually be related to him or not. He has no interest in our Berliner family tree. And he is especially not interested in being related in any way to any of the billions of ,ordinary, average , people with whom he claims to blend in with so well - regardless of what the genealogists say. So there is a kind of contradiction - a contradiction that allows the viewers to assess this issue for themselves through our competing perspectives. My father claims that more people will agree with him than with me. He's probably right. And that's OK.
M.A.: But your father does feel connected to you, your sister Lynn and, as we later see, to his granddaughter Jade.
A.B.: My sister and I are his main links to the world. Early in the film I show him a picture of his own grandparents, neither of whom he has ever seen before, and he responds by saying, ,I don't give a shit about them.' But later on in the film, he is seen playing with and kissing his own grandchild. It's the only time in the film that you see him smile. His explanation for these ,expressions of love' is that ,you have to be a grandfather to understand what I'm talking about.'
M.A.: Then you attempt to out-debate him?
A.B.: I try, but in futility. I remind him that he stands in the same relationship to Jade that his own grandparents stood to him. He reminds me that he knows Jade, that Jade knows him, but that he never knew his grandparents - that they could be characters taken out of a storybook. Fair enough. He's right. But then I go on to remind him that someone, possibly far out into the future, might say the same thing about him one day - might casually shrug off any connection to his photograph, to his memory, to his existence. His response? ,Big deal. Who cares? What do you want me to do about it? Why is this so important?'
M.A.: So he doesn't understand what you're trying to get at?
A.B.: Precisely. But it doesn't matter. In the end I can't out-debate him. There's nothing else I can say to him. His indifference has a certain power and logic to it. But at the same time, I myself got tremendous personal satisfaction by going to Poland, searching out their tombstones in the cemetery, and trying to learn about the lives of my great-grandparents. So, again, no one wins, no one loses. It's all in how you see it.
M.A.: How has your father reacted to seeing the film?
A.B.: He's only seen it once, at the world premiere at the New York Film Festival in October 1996, and because of his hearing problem he had trouble understanding much of the voice over soundtrack. My sense is that it was all very abstract, very exciting, and probably very frightening for him. But he knows that something very special happened that night, especially when 1100 people gave him a standing ovation!
M.A.: What did making NOBODY'S BUSINESS teach you?
A.B.: Towards the end, I ask my father whether he considers the film an act of love on my part. He boldly answers no. It hurt me to hear him say that. But in many ways the film has been profoundly liberating for me. Cathartic. I now feel closer to him than ever before. It's almost as if the process of making the film has dissipated the tensions between us. I've come to realize that if I can't change him, at least I can try to understand him better. And part of understanding is letting go. Letting go means accepting.
M.A.: How do you think he's been affected by the film?
A.B.: Perhaps he's had little epiphanies too. I don't think you can partake in this kind of experience and walk away untouched. Ironically, it took making a film about him to finally show him what it is that I do. He probably still wishes I was an accountant or a lawyer, but at least I've earned his respect. About three weeks after the New York Film Festival screening, I went to his apartment and noticed that he had framed the postcard announcement for the film and put it on his bookshelf. He'd never done anything like that before. I suppose that's another way of saying he loves me, or that he has accepted the film as a kind of gift to him. But at the same time, I'm still quite sure that he's never going to ask to see those photographs of his grandparents again.
(Questions asked by Mitch Albert.)
Alan Berliner was born in 1956 in New York City. Since 1973 he has been working as an independent filmmaker and media artist. In 1979 he graduated from the School of Art of the University of Oklahoma.
Apart from filmmaking, Alan Berliner also works as an editor and develops and presents audio- and video-sculptures, as well as installations and para-cinema.
1975: Patent Pending. 1976-77: Four Corner Time (vier Teile: Line, Perimeter, Traffic Light, Bus Stop). 1977: Color Wheel. 1979: Lines of Force. 1980: City Edition. 1981: Myth in the Electric Age. 1983: Natural History. 1985: Everywhere at Once. 1986: The Family Album. 1990: Late City Edition. 1991: Intimate Stranger. 1996: NOBODY'S BUSINESS.
© 1997 by International Forum of New Cinema. All rights reserved.