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Getting to the Heart of Alan Berliner

Television: His 'POV' documentary on names ended up becoming a self-examination.

June 26, 2001|ANN HORNADAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — To visit documentary maker Alan Berliner's New York studio is to take a journey through his mind. It stands to reason that he would ask his guests to take their shoes off first. Berliner's loft--the entire fourth floor of a TriBeCa building--bursts with the discoveries and detritus of 40 years' worth of collecting: reels of film, shelves of videos, boxes of audiotapes, binders full of clippings, photographs and postcards, file cabinets full of string, watch faces, toy animals. Two editing machines--a Steenbeck and an Avid--vie for space with a collection of Buddhas, globes, pyramids and three Emmy awards.

And yet, for the sheer amount of stuff that packs the space, it exudes a Zen-like calm. Every single thing has its place, put there by Berliner's careful hand. That balance between chaos and order aptly describes Berliner's own work, in which the filmmaker routinely takes a breathtaking amount of material--mostly culled from his own vast collection--and edits it down to a densely layered film that manages to tap into universal themes even as it is propelled by his own peculiar obsessions and anxieties.

In "The Family Album" (1986), Berliner mined his huge collection of anonymous home movies and audiotapes to create a meditation on family, identity and intimacy. In his next two films, "Intimate Stranger" and "Nobody's Business," Berliner delved even more profoundly into those themes, using found footage and present-day interviews to create two portraits--of his grandfather and father, respectively--that not only revealed his own feelings about his often attenuated family relations, but also confronted viewers with the distance that can exist in everyone's closest relationships. Now, with "The Sweetest Sound," which airs tonight on PBS as part of its "POV" series, Berliner has taken his inquiry to the next logical step: himself. Or at least the signifier of his self-ness.

In the one-hour film, Berliner considers the name Alan Berliner, from asking random people on the street what they associate with it ("Someone not wild--I don't think of Alan as wild") to convening the 12 other men on the planet who share it. Woven throughout his own witty and sometimes tetchy personal observations are intriguing snippets of information (Chang is the most common name in the world; Smith the most common name in the U.S.) and a more universal essay on the power of names to evoke identity, temperament, even history.

"The Sweetest Sound's" appearance on "POV" tonight makes Berliner the most oft-shown director on the documentary series (all three of his previous films made their American television premieres on "POV").

"He's always looking for the universal in the detail, and he's become very adept at finding it," says "POV" executive producer Cara Mertes. " 'The Sweetest Sound' in another filmmaker's hands would have been a waste of time."

In the midst of a lineup that includes several documentaries on social issues--from welfare to migrant workers--"The Sweetest Sound" represents "the purest example of the film essay," Mertes says. "Alan is on one edge of the narrative trajectory. He plays with it more than other people do." ("POV" continues through Aug. 28, and will present two specials in the fall.)

Berliner's fans may understandably assume that "The Sweetest Sound" was planned all along as a follow-up to his previous films, but he originally had something else in mind. "I had naturally grandiose aspirations," Berliner said recently. "I wanted to make the definitive film about names."

So the filmmaker undertook due diligence in researching names, reading reference books, purchasing three lineal feet of back journals of the American Name Society and interviewing New Yorkers from Chinatown to Harlem about the provenance and meaning of their names. He filmed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the AIDS Memorial Quilt; he visited Ellis Island; he attended conventions of people named Jim Smith and Linda. And Berliner searched for people with his own name, sending 800 letters to Berliner families around the world that he located through the Internet. He already knew of two fellow Alan Berliners. For years, he has been receiving purchase orders (and once a paycheck) for Los Angeles photographer Alan Berliner, and in 1997 Belgian director Alain Berliner released the acclaimed film "Ma Vie en Rose."

"I was getting phone calls and letters and hugs from people, and I almost felt like [they] were disappointed when they learned I didn't make 'Ma Vie en Rose,' " he said. "I felt embarrassed that I wasn't a feature film director like him. There were some esteem issues going on."

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