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Films on rest and the lack thereof

January 30, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

Alan Berliner is tired. Alan Berliner is always tired. That's because Alan Berliner has insomnia. And now, with a baby on the way, things are only going to get worse.

"Wide Awake," Berliner's new film exploring the personal side of sleeplessness, is an apt companion to another documentary that premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival: Haskell Wexler and Lisa Leeman's documentary, "Who Needs Sleep?" which explores the social costs of sleeplessness.

Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" sounds like a documentary but is actually a feature from the director of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It explores the relationship between dreams and reality. (But Jason Matzner's "Dreamland," another feature film, is not about sleep at all.)

Although you'd expect there to be topical films on the same subject at the festival -- 15 films about the Iraq war were submitted for consideration this year; festival programmers chose three, all documentaries -- sleep is not exactly a hot topic. Unless, of course, you don't get any.

"It's a big subject," Berliner said at a screening of his film Wednesday night. "Studies have shown that one in three people has some kind of issue with sleeplessness. That's a lot of people."

In Berliner's case, the movie is a deeply personal exploration of the possible causes of his insomnia and the exasperation not just of his wife, but of the rest of his family as well. At night, under the gaze of a camera, he tosses and turns, only to fall asleep just before he needs to wake up.

"Why can't sleep be like going to the gas station ... fill 'er up?" he wonders in the film. "My biological clock needs to go to the repair shop."

Both Wexler and Berliner consult doctors and researchers. Both allow themselves to be hooked up to monitors to chart their sleep cycles.

"Who Needs Sleep?" is an expose of the long hours Hollywood crews are required to put in and was inspired by the death of Brent Hershman, an assistant cameraman who fell asleep at the wheel and died on his way home from a set in 1997, leaving a wife and two young daughters. For years, some in the industry have argued for more civilized hours.

"In Hollywood, we call it the 'lost weekend,' " Wexler said in an interview here. "You work all night Friday, come home early Saturday morning just as the family is waking up, you sleep most of Saturday, and then everything gets poured into Sunday."

Although some movie crews are fighting for time to sleep, Berliner has the time, his body just won't cooperate. There is danger and desperation in both situations. "In our society," says a doctor in "Wide Awake," "nobody protects sleep."

Both films refer to research from the National Sleep Foundation, including a striking finding that a lack of sleep produces in drivers a reduction in skills and reaction time similar to that of drivers who have been drinking.

Berliner is not bothered that another filmmaker is exploring similar territory. "I am thrilled, actually, because maybe there is something in the air."

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