Family Matters

The Texas Documentary Tour: Alan Berliner

A film critics compile their year-end lists, they might include a new category: least likely movie star. One candidate is Oscar Berliner, a cranky, reclusive, and ostensibly unremarkable man who received an impassioned standing ovation at the 1996 New York Film Festival. As the central character of the experimental documentary Nobody's Business, the 79-year-old retired sportswear manufacturer has become a symbol of sorts -- an ordinary man whose life is proven to be worthy of celebration. Berliner also has become a proud father. Nobody's Business was created by his son Alan, who is developing a reputation as one of America's most innovative, exciting filmmakers. While Nobody's Business represented a breakthrough for Oscar Berliner, who, after years of solitude, has become a minor celebrity in the building where he lives, it also has been important to Alan. Nobody's Business is Alan's most widely seen film to date, having toured the world (it has won nine international festival awards) and been broadcast as the 1997 season opener of PBS's prestigious P.O.V. television series.

Alan Berliner, who has created a compelling body of work revolving around issues of family identity, will bring the funny, touching, and inventive Nobody's Business to Austin as part of the Texas Documentary Tour. The film will be screened at the Alamo Drafthouse, 6:30pm, on Wednesday, January 14. In a way, Nobody's Business represents the culmination of more than 12 years of work for Berliner. His last three films have explored the American family. Each has been more personal than the last. For his 1986 work, The Family Album, Berliner spliced together vintage, anonymous home movies and bits of audio gathered from more than 150 families to create a birth-to-death narrative collage. The Family Album, in its non-specificity, examined the essence of American familial life. The film was included in the 1987 Whitney Biennale.

Intimate Portrait (1991) sifts through a different kind of archival material: the unfinished autobiography of Joseph Cassuto, Berliner's grandfather. Cassuto was, to most who knew him, a relatively unremarkable businessman. But Berliner, using home movies, interviews with his uncles (Cassuto's sons), and his grandfather's writings, constructs a portrait of a memorable, cryptic individual. Critic Desson Howe, writing for The Washington Post, called Intimate Portrait "an archetypal musing on the enigma of personality." With Nobody's Business, Berliner for the first time takes on a living, breathing (and very contrarian) relative. From the opening scenes, Oscar Berliner is completely resistant to his son's attempts to question him -- he's the most reluctant subject since General Motors chairman Roger Smith, who gave Michael Moore the runaround in Roger & Me.

"You're wasting your time!" Oscar shouts (he's hard of hearing) at his son. "My life is nothing. I was in the army, I got married, I raised a family. I worked hard, had my own business, that's all. That's nothing to make a picture about! Who the hell am I?"

That question -- who is Oscar Berliner? -- is central to Nobody's Business. Alan is determined to prove that his father's life, given a passionate investigation, contains a mythic dimension. The details of Oscar's life -- which include an immigrant childhood, a stint as a naval officer in World War II, a marriage to a bombshell of a woman, a successful career in the textile industry, and two kids and a grandchild -- are of great interest to Alan. To Oscar, these memories are only nominally significant. He refuses to talk with his son about the past, except in dismissive tones. Even after Alan travels to Eastern Europe in search of traces of his family (Oscar's parents were Polish immigrants), Oscar remains steadfastly unimpressed.

"There was one tombstone standing all alone," Alan tells his father upon returning from the Berliners' ancestral home, "and that one I chose to see as your grandfather."

"Hooray for you," Oscar says, disinterested. Berliner said he was a bit surprised at the totality of his father's resistance. Making Nobody's Business turned out to be a risky venture -- at stake was the relationship with his father. "He's a cantankerous, stubborn man, and he didn't think much of the undertaking," Berliner said during a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment. "I'm this earnest, genealogist wannabe with a romantic edge, interested in pretty much everything to do with our family history.... He's the most compelling character in my life, and he leads this reclusive, sad existence, not talking to others for days at a time, spending his day alone in this emotional poverty. It's been the source of exasperation for me, and for a long time I've tried to change him. The time came to have a heart-to-heart, and I thought that making this film would be a good chance to try and understand him and make a healing."

Nobody's Business has been called a "personal documentary" and a "film diary" -- terms that have come to have negative connotations. While those who point cameras at their own lives often produce angst-ridden, self-indulgent work, Berliner's movies have raised the level of family documentation to an innovative new level.

Berliner was trained as an artist and experimental filmmaker at SUNY-Binghamton and the University of Oklahoma, and his fine-arts background is evident in Nobody's Business. He wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited the film, which has a handmade, labor-of-love quality. Nobody's Business also builds on themes visible in Berliner's early works -- video installations, large photographic scrolls, and collages that explore issues of space and time.

Berliner continues to tinker with notions of time and space, as a filmmaker, an editor-for-hire (he has won two Emmys and been nominated for three others), and a film professor (he teaches a course at the New School for Social Research entitled "Experiments in Time, Light and Motion"). Nobody's Business, for example, travels smoothly from the intense, face-to-face father/son interviews to more playful encounters with members of Berliner's extended family; and from the family history vaults run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah into the world of mathematical genealogy (any two humans, Berliner learns, are at least 50th cousins). Berliner's quirky, epic journey eventually leads to Poland, where the filmmaker finds that the Holocaust erased all but trace material about his family.

Nobody's Business wastes no energy adhering to conventional definitions of documentary -- this is a genre-bender, filled with thoughtful, idiosyncratic touches. The film, for example, is punctuated with recurring footage of a boxing match, a clever, resonant reminder of Berliner's combative relationship with his father. New York Film Festival director Richard Pena, asked to locate a cinematic reference point for Nobody's Business, suggested Citizen Kane, another innovative film that explored the conflicts and struggles that come with belonging to a family. "Alan Berliner represents to me the most exciting breakthrough out of the impasse of the family film," Pena told Phillip Lopate, writing for The New York Times. "Most documentaries end up planting the camera and waiting for something to happen. With Berliner, one sees a much more playful, essayistic thought process at work."

Even with their experimental trappings, Berliner's works remain accessible. The filmmaker spent much of 1997 traveling to festivals throughout North American and Europe with Nobody's Business, and at every stop, he said, the audiences demonstrated their appreciation. "I don't know how the high priests of the avant-garde have responded to the film, but the people in the pews in the Church of Everyday seem to relate to it," Berliner said. "It seems to transcend gender and religion, and cultural, social, and national demographics.

"I guess, if you peel away the layers, you take it down to the very fact that everyone has a father, so everyone has a frame of reference for the film. I also think the emotional territory is honest enough that people can find their way in, and use the film as a measure of their own situation, their own history."

Without the reminiscences of his father, Alan had a difficult time answering basic questions about his ancestry. Where did the Berliners come from? What did it mean to be a Berliner? To help address those issues, Alan began scouring phonebooks from around the country and invited dozens of people named Berliner to New York. Interviews with these random Berliners broaden the film's context. From a story of a father and son, Nobody's Business expands into an exploration of cousins, commonalities, and what it means to be related.

"Yes, we are related, but we are still strangers," one cousin tells Berliner. Another unknowingly sums up the entire film: "We are all strange relatives." Nobody's Business, like The Family Album and Intimate Stranger before it, will also be screened at the Museum of Modern Art, a notable honor for contemporary filmmakers. The Family Album and Intimate Stranger also preceded Nobody's Business as selections of P.O.V., PBS's famed television venue for documentary film.

The response to the 1997 PBS broadcast of Nobody's Business is now the stuff of legend. After the film aired in June, viewers overwhelmed the call-in line, blowing out the PBS phone system. Nobody's Business elicited three times the response as any previous P.O.V. broadcast. Berliner said he fielded calls and letters from, among others, Inuit women in Alaska and Korean families in California, all of whom felt a connection with Alan and his father. This despite the fact that Oscar at times seems almost a caricature -- the crotchety New York City Jew.

"People are finding a piece of themselves in my father, or in me," Berliner said. "I think it serves, in a vicarious, or voyeuristic way, as a substitute for people who haven't had these conversations with their parents. I think my father as a character, however stereotypical he may be, is authentic enough to relate to, and the integrity of his stance, of his existential plight, also is authentic."

Cranky and cantankerous, Oscar Berliner is a great film character, funnier, suggested one British reviewer, than any of Woody Allen's inventions. But Nobody's Business inhabits much broader territory than any of Allen's films -- this is an immigrant film, the story of American assimilation told in first person.

Oscar's story is a familiar one. His parents arrived in America and, struggling for acceptance, neglected to document their origins. For Oscar and his parents, ethnicity was a handicap. For Alan, having grown up in a relatively flavorless mainstream, it is a nagging necessity. "Everyone who came over felt a need to start fresh, to start anew," Alan said. "My father's generation tried really hard to not have the Yiddish accent. He tried to be good at baseball, not remember the older stories. He wanted to be American.

"But I'm freed from having to blend in -- I'm blended. So rather than sink into a soup that has less and less flavor, we are each trying to find our colors, our pedigree, our stories, lest the American tapestry begins to fade."

The Texas Documentary tour will present Nobody's Business on Wednesday, January 14 at the Alamo Drafthouse. Doors open at 6:30pm; showtime is 7pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and UT students. Alan Berliner will be on hand to introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session afterwards. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, The University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.

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