Heartbreaking, haunting and unexpectedly heartening, "First Cousin Once Removed" is an uncommonly moving documentary portrait of a mind in disarray. Its unblinking look at a once-formidable intelligence descending into the abyss of Alzheimer's succeeds because of a fusion of subject and filmmaker that is transcendent.
That filmmaker would be Alan Berliner, whose decades of intensely personal essay-type films such as "Wide Awake," "Nobody's Business" and "Intimate Strangers" have been the perfect preparation for this artful, poetic piece of work.
Berliner's films invariably involve his family, and in "First Cousin Once Removed," he focuses his lens on the impressive Edward Honig, his mother's cousin and a man who's been very much of a mentor to the filmmaker. It's easy to see why.
Celebrated as a poet, translator, critic and professor at Harvard and Brown, Honig had more than 20 books published in his day. He translated works by Lorca, Calderon and Cervantes and was knighted for his efforts by both the king of Spain and the president of Portugal.
But, as this film's title elegantly suggests, Honig is now increasingly distant, no longer the man he once was. Someone whose whole life was words is now forgetting them all, one by one, letter by letter, finally making only sounds.
But even as Honig is going away, "First Cousin" captures him in a sense railing against the darkness, still capable of rousing himself and saying simple things that come close to sounding profound. "The mind can be blank and still be going," he says at one point, and we come to see just what that means.
What enables a project such as this to succeed is the artistry of Berliner's filmmaking, the delicate way he structures clips from frequent interviews recorded over a five-year span (Honig died in 2011 at age 91) with abstract nature imagery and creative techniques like words appearing on-screen, one typewritten letter at a time.
"First Cousin" begins with a glimpse of the wordless Honig, simply making sounds, and an interview with his sister Lila underlining that we're seeing "the unspeakable, the unseeable, the unsayable... People want to see it and don't want to see it."
Then we go to a montage of clips from numerous Berliner visits, first to Honig's Providence, R.I., apartment and then to a nursing home, showing the man increasingly unsure of who his visitor is. "How do I know you?" he asks at one point. "You look familiar, and I don't know anything else," he says at another; "It troubles me that I cannot remember you after all these years" at a third. One can literally watch Honig's mind slipping away, bit by bit.
Honig agreed to this project while he was lucid but knew what was coming. He has some really striking things to say about the whole subject of memory, in his own surprising way.
"What I can't remember is what it feels like to remember," he says one day, while on another he notes, with a touch of wonder, "I know there is a past and I lived in it, but I gave it away. I live only in the present."
Much of "First Cousin" is occupied with investigating that past, in hearing other people, friends, students, family, talking about how they remember Honig. The professional colleagues are admiring, the family members noticeably less so, with Honig's sons recalling a father whose comments could cut to the heart.
We also see old photographs of people that Honig gradually ceases to remember, including one of himself. "He's the man you once were," Berliner helpfully prompts him, to which the poet startlingly replies, "I met him first."
The most remarkable parts of this story are Honig's unexpected comments, his ability to say deft things when you think hope of any kind of language is gone. Near the end, out of nowhere, he rouses himself and tells his cousin: "Just forget me. I'm here and that is all."
Moments like that allow this intensely personal project to resonate with potent universality.
'First Cousin Once Removed'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Town Center, Encino