To paraphrase a famous fundraising slogan, a mind is a terrible thing to watch wasting away.
But that’s what filmmaker Alan Berliner does in his moving and lovingly motivated documentary, “First Cousin Once Removed,” premiering on HBO September 23.
Berliner’s subject is his cousin, Edwin Honig (1919-2011), the noted poet, translator and teacher, who spent the last years of his life suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
Berliner filmed Honig five or six times a year over the last five years of his life and his decline is heartbreaking. Towards the end, he doesn’t recognize images of his younger self, his mother or his children.
But in the midst of his decay he occasionally becomes lucid, spouting poetic phrases both playful and profound. When Berliner asks if it is okay to film him Honig replies: “Mirror, mirror on the wall; you can be camera and I will be all.” At another point in the movie, he comments on the trees outside his apartment, “Leaves very still. But in the stillness there is movement. A moving painting.”
Berliner spoke to The Arty Semite about his relationship with his cousin, the difficulty of watching his deterioration and his propensity to make very personal documentaries.
Curt Schleier: How close to Edwin were you?