First Cousin Once Removed

Directed by Alan Berliner

Starring Edwin Honig

Filmmaker Alan Berliner documents his first cousin, the poet-translator Edwin Honig, as he succumbs to Alzheimer's.


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  • ★★★★ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd


    The deteriorating life of a poet, depicted poetically. I've been aware of Berliner since Nobody's Business played NYFF in 1996, but I never actually saw that film, in part because it looked maudlin in bare description. But then, so does this—Berliner interviews his elderly cousin, academic Edwin Honig, over a period of years as Alzheimer's gradually robs him of his memory—and the movie itself turns out to be thrillingly experimental, tossing every disease-of-the-week convention to the four winds. Right from the outset, Berliner rejects the easy pathos of the downward slide, fragmenting years of footage and multiple stages of dementia into an impressionistic mosaic; Honig often begins speaking a sentence in one year and completes it in another (not necessarily in chronological order), or delivers three varying responses to the same question in rat-a-tat parallel. Onscreen text coupled with typewriter sound effects provide exposition that simultaneously serves as counterpoint to what's happening visually at that moment. Archival footage is explicitly metaphorical and mostly unrelated to Honig's personal history. When Honig unexpectedly starts talking about the sky, Berliner uses it as a cue to explore the sea, which somehow seems devastatingly apropos. And none of this brilliant technique (which also includes some sublime collage work) effaces its subject's remarkable mind, with its heartbreaking, half-lucid observations and inventories. At one point, Honig launches into an impromptu disquisition on the trees outside his window, waxing eloquent and profound...except he can't remember the word for leaves. (I wish I could recall what he says, but imagine, say, someone spontaneously inventing "The quality of mercy is not strain'd; it droppeth as the, what is that wet stuff that falls from the sky? So gentle.") Even the film's title is at once literally true and thematically incisive. Were Honig a less dramatically compelling father and husband (in the O'Neill sense), First Cousin might have been a masterpiece; alas, he turns out to have been kind of a shit to his two adopted sons, both of whom have broken off contact with him, and the back half of the movie delves into this turbulent family history without ever quite integrating it with the Alzheimer's reverie (except maybe in the sense that there are some parts of his life that Honig, and we by extension, would rather forget). Still, this is what a documentary portrait made by a real artist looks like. Good job NYFF.

  • ★★★★ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd


    Second viewing, no change, nothing much to add to my previous remarks. Certainly one of the very best films of the past few years that most of my peers haven't yet seen.

  • ★★★★½ review by preston on Letterboxd

    This is why I don't trust my reactions to documentaries. Wouldn't this great subject - greater than any mere movie - have been devastating even if filmed by a hack? Maybe, but a hack wouldn't have included the bit where a senile old man's dream world is evoked as an underwater sanctum, his memories transmuted into shoals of multicoloured fish. Or the encounter between old man and little boy that briefly turns into a surreal contemplation of trains. Or the too-obvious tree metaphor that promptly gets deconstructed ("I'm trying to explore the trees as a metaphor"), or indeed the way we're trusted to recognise "I grow old, I grow old" from 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' - and appreciate the sadness in a poet having forgotten one of the best-known lines in modern poetry - without anyone having to explain it. Or the constant push-and-pull between Berliner's wish to honour his mentor yet tell the unvarnished truth, or indeed between his focus on the subject and his focus on his own sense of loss. Or the final, inexplicably moving shot, rhyming the mechanics of memory - our link to our selves, our life in a nutshell - with the view from the window of a man now departed. The grace-notes are almost as devastating as the subject. Not a hack, clearly.

  • ★★★★ review by Frederic Da on Letterboxd


    Very hard to watch but absolutely necessary. Technically and conceptually sublime: an unflinching look at a poet losing his memory to Alzheimer's. The director (and titular first cousin once removed), constructs the entire piece as a poem in itself.

    On a geeky film nerd level, this movie perfectly highlights the major difference between abstract experimentalism and creative use of form to further your content.

    And from a human/documentary perspective, the subject is fascinating and transcendental. It isn't just about a poet: it's about all of us and the memories we hold so dear; memories that we tend to take for granted (or sometimes try to run away from) during our youth but fight to hold on to in our old age.

  • ★★★★ review by Raoul Groothuizen on Letterboxd

    An intimate documentary about reliving (beautiful and/or painful) memories and eventually losing them.

    The combination of brilliant poetic editing and very personal interviews with the fascinating mr. Honig makes this film a beautiful but sad cinematic experience.

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