The Austin Chronicle

I'll Sleep When I Figure Out Why I Can't

Analyzing Alan Berliner's most personal documentary yet

By Anne S. Lewis, March 10, 2006, Screens

It would be no stretch to say that with his latest effort, Alan Berliner has created the Personal Essay Film. No small feat that, given the expanse of personal mythology that Berliner – one of the most influential in the nonfiction genre today – has mined in his internationally acclaimed films. In Nobody's Business (1996), Berliner ostensibly turned his lens on the most unwilling subject ever, his cranky elderly dad, Oscar.

But beneath the by-now signature style – a buoyant, warmly told first-person narrative, enhanced with a precisely edited tapestry of archival and real-time footage and punctuated with pitch-perfect sound effects – lurked the steady gaze of Berliner the son reappraising his childhood experience of family through adult eyes. For 2001's The Sweetest Sound, Berliner invited all the other Alan Berliners in the world to his loft for dinner and a conversation about how they've fared so far with his name. Another film about being Alan Berliner.

Now, with Wide Awake, Berliner opens the blinds all the way on yet another identity-defining matter: his lifelong sleeping problem. Berliner has never been able to fall asleep until just about when the rest of the world is waking up, which leaves him feeling perpetually "jet-lagged in his own time zone." Only in the wee hours does he hit his stride and do his best work. The complication: Since his last film, Berliner has married and had a baby; naturally, wife and baby need him to be wide awake when they are.

Berliner realizes something's got to give, but fears that his creative edge might be inextricably bound up with his nocturnal work habit. Something like Samson and his hair. What to do? If you're Alan Berliner, you circle the problem with obsessive zeal from every conceivable angle in order to assess your options. So, he consults sleep experts, gets wired in sleep labs, sits down over Chinese takeout with mom and sister to probe all remotely relevant nature-or-nurture causative links. How do we know, he asks poor mum, that the root of his insomnia is not directly traceable to the childhood trauma of overhearing his parents arguing in the middle of the night?

Of course, Berliner acknowledges, some viewers might watch him struggling with the daytime fallout from his nocturnal work habit and ask, why doesn't he just drink coffee like the rest of us? Alas, when last he tried it, more than 30 years ago, caffeine was simply too nerve-jangling. However, in the interests of scientific inquiry, Berliner decides to try an on-camera experiment and give the universal stimulant another shot. As we observe his response, it's clear that as a solution, coffee will be a nonstarter. Still, for the viewer, there will be an enormous collateral benefit to the coffee experiment, when a wired Berliner jumps up to give us a guided tour of his legendary archive, the labeled and coded-to-the-colors-in-the-spectrum (of course) boxes that line the walls of his studio. Therein lie the raw materials from which his magical multilayered films are built.

A few examples: The red boxes contain black-and-white footage (old newsreels, educational films, National Archive); the orange, sound effects (the sound of footsteps on snow, water, brush, discarded tapes from answering machines, recordings from children's birthday parties, etc.); the yellow boxes house color film, including outtakes donated by other filmmakers; green: anonymous American family 16mm home movies from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties; blue, Berliner family home movies/and photos from birth to present; violet, anonymous photographs and "orphaned" photo albums culled from garage sales and flea markets all over the world; black: alphabetized files of notebooks filed with publication clips and other paper pertaining to the minutiae of Berliner's wide-ranging interests, from paleontology to the notes from his grandmother's brain surgery. Then, there are the boxes of glass negatives and slides, those housing collections of flip books, spheres, bells, and miniature watch parts (his favorite). Beginning to get the picture?

Berliner observes in passing that his sleep problem has gotten worse as his archive has grown. That's an understatement: Who would be able to sleep with the subliminal "hum" of all that bustle, the captured moments from all of those lives contained in all those boxes down the hall from one's bedroom? end story

Wide Awake

Regional Premiere

Saturday, March 11, 1:45pm, Alamo Downtown

Wednesday, March 15. 8:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

Documentary Storytelling: Pushing the Envelope with Creative Editing

Sunday, March 12, 1pm, Room 13B

Anne Lewis, Alan Berliner, Ellen Spiro

For more documentary panels, see

From the Archives:

Alan Berliner's 'The Sweetest Sound'

Family Matters

The Texas Documentary Tour: Alan Berliner

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