Alan Berliner’s Archive

April 19th, 2011 § 0 comments

[My midterm paper was a short profile of the filmmaker, Alan Berliner, focusing mainly on his use of archival materials and the meticulousness with which he maintains his own personal archive, comprised of both personal materials as well as things he has collected over the past thirty-five years or so. Embedded below is part of the scene that I mention in the first paragraph – apologies to Alan if posting this causes some copyright issues.]

(For some reason, the video won’t embed properly, but you can follow the link below.  -Steve)

Alan Berliner – Wide Awakeby wouspike



Now let me tell you a few things I love about home movies.
They are anthropological sites.
Shards from archaeological digs.
They are mirrors.
They are windows.
Time capsules.
They are questions waiting to be answered.
They are answers waiting to be questioned.

-Alan Berliner

There is a scene in his 2007 film, Wide Awake, in which Alan Berliner, having imbibed coffee for what he reckons to be the third time ever in his life, steps in front of the camera and gives a hyperactive, madcap tour of his editing studio and amazing personal archival collection. Berliner’s films are nothing short of miraculous in their use of archival materials: both the volume and diversity of materials is bewildering, but what is truly striking is how effectively he uses these materials to create emotional resonances with his themes, counterpoints with the audio track, a visual playfulness through careful juxtaposition, and a rhythm of montage that pulls the viewer almost helplessly into Berliner’s world. This world is not quite somewhere between fact and fiction though; I would say its somewhere between fact and fantasy. This is an important distinction because I don’t think he is creating a fictional world, but he is definitely pushing both himself and his viewers into some kind of dreamland, where historical images take on new layers of hidden meaning.

The idea of a dreamland is appropriate, especially in the context of Wide Awake, which is about Berliner’s attempts to break the destructive pattern of insomnia that he has suffered with for much of his adult life. The film even begins by evoking one of his own recurring dreams that he has visually reconstructed from archival footage. The scene in his studio however, is not a dream at all: this is Berliner at his most awake and alert – his voiceover until now had been thoughtful and meditative, but now he has a manic giddiness as he takes us on his tour. His studio and, more precisely, his archive, is where he feels most comfortable, and once the tour commences, you come to understand that his meticulously crafted films are the direct result of both a meticulously organized mind as well as a meticulously organized, albeit eclectic, archive.

Berliner’s studio is neat and clean while still being absolutely loaded with stuff: photographs, newspaper clippings, old letters, old family albums, videotapes, audio tapes, typewriter pieces, film reels, books, broken clocks and even a box of mismatched sprockets. His floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are filled with an orderly array of boxes all the same size – old boxes for photographic paper, he says – and they are all precisely labeled and even color-coded. The labels and colors give him a broad sense of what is inside: pictures of women; old pieces of film that are not part of a reel; rubber stamps; those loose gears from innumerable watches and unidentifiable machines; pictures of world leaders cut out of the newspaper; maps; flags; and so on. There are hundreds of these boxes, from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. They form a rainbow pattern behind him as he works at his editing suite in the center of the room. Importantly, this is still a growing collection: while he doesn’t add to it as much as he used to, he still buys a copy of the New York Times every morning, cuts out the pictures that interest him, and files them in the proper box on his shelf; maybe some day he will put them into a film, and maybe not. He just keeps them because he sees some kind of potential in them. “My studio is also a kind of multi-media archive.  I have assembled collections of sounds — both sound effects and other audio recordings (such as music and historical speeches); motion picture images — including home movies (both from my own family and anonymous sources), fragments of old films, both feature and documentary; newspaper and magazine photographs clipped from The New York Times and various magazines; 35mm slide transparencies (both found and personal); old (anonymous) family photographs and photo albums; not to mention all sorts of miscellaneous objects and curiosities that I’ve saved over the years.  I also have an entire wall composed of more than 200 loose-leaf notebooks, containing information — mostly newspaper and magazine articles — on a wide and eclectic range of different subjects that continue to interest me.”

His collection of course, was not always so large. He told me that he has been a collector and a collagist all of his life; even as a kid, he used to cut out pictures from magazines and paste them together to make something new out of them. In fact, he says he still has piles and piles of Life magazine in his studio, just waiting to be turned into something. While he had long made a habit of collecting pictures, old photo albums, and audio recordings, his collecting did not always have a guiding principle or specific end-goal in mind: “….I don’t collect things with any intrinsic monetary value. I just save things in the service of my ongoing work, acting as a kind of bricoleur who gathers, accumulates, and assembles things, ideas, and meanings as he goes along.”

His 1986 film, The Family Album – his first full-length endeavor – grew directly out of this compulsion for collecting. He didn’t conceive of the film and then set out to accumulate the footage he wanted for it. Rather, it seemed to work the other way around: from the footage came the idea for the film. He had been working as a sound editor in New York, and had gotten into the habit of looking more closely at the “fill” that he used. “Fill” is basically a piece of otherwise discarded film that is used to make silence in an audio track; it may have images, but no sound, and so is just used to “fill in” the spaces that don’t have an audible soundtrack. As he started to look at the images, he became interested in them in much the same way as he had always been interested in old photo albums and magazine pictures; and so he began to cut some clips out and assemble them into his own reels of random imagery.


His interest in collecting films piqued, he began buying old film reels; he told me that, apparently, in the mid-seventies in New York, you could just buy old film reels in stores and stalls all over the place – old movies, commercials, industrial pictures, home movies. One day he came across a flier from somebody who wanted to get rid of a lot of old films; Berliner copied the number down and called the next day: “…I purchased a rather large collection of rare 16mm black-and-white home movies, representing some seventy-five different families of mixed racial, religious, ethnic, and class origins, taken from the mid-1920s through the late 1940s. I bought them from a lifelong cinemabilia collector who simply had no more room to store them.” It was this collection that would spark the idea for The Family Album. The film led some to dub Berliner the “Man Without a Movie Camera” as it consists entirely of a “complex collage of sounds and images, exploring the celebrations, struggles, conflicts, and contradictions of American family life.” He juxtaposes and counterpoints “a wide range of intimate sounds – including found and donated recordings of oral histories, birthday parties, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, holiday gatherings, music lessons, audio letters, and just plain old fly-on-the-wall arguments in the kitchen – with hundreds of different home movie images.” The resulting film is one that tells a universal story of American family life – from marriages and births, through deaths and divorces – by relying on very particular and very specific snippets of anonymous lives.


The film’s audio contained some pieces that Berliner had recorded himself, with his own family. Notably, the divorce scene and the difficulties arising from it, came from interviews and other recordings he made with his own parents and siblings. His subsequent films would delve deeper into his own family history, and begin to incorporate archival materials that were closer to his heart and more personal in their tone. Intimate Stranger is a film that he made about his maternal grandfather, Joseph Cassuto, an enigmatic man who, while managing to find himself at the center of numerous events of social and historical significance, was never well-known or understood by his family members.4 Berliner underscores this point, a recurring theme in the film, by displaying a series of photographs in which his grandfather has uncannily managed to not only place himself in the center of the various groups being photographed, but to make himself the center of the photograph’s attention: he may be wearing a white tuxedo to a black-tie event, or wearing casual but noticeable beach attire to party where everyone else is wearing suits and cocktail gowns. The man made himself the center of attention, and yet was a virtual mystery to his own family.


Part of the reason Berliner could even make a film about the man is due to his grandfather’s self-centeredness: when he died suddenly, he left behind a large archive of letters, manuscripts and photographs, the early stages of an autobiography. This archive formed the core of Berliner’s film and revealed to him an ironic truth about archives and their inherent nature as being, first and foremost, collections that are not only curated but curated with a purpose. While making the film, he became even more interested in his grandmother – Joseph’s wife – but was unable to delve as deeply into her life. “To be sure, my grandmother Rose Cassuto’s life story was no less interesting than that of my grandfather’s.  But, (for better or worse), history tends to reward the survivors. He’s the one who obsessively saved the letters, papers, photographs and everything else that served as documentation for the film. He was the one who felt compelled to write his autobiography — to become a witness of and to his own life.  Of course, without all of that material, I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about him — but also – I wouldn’t have learned very much about my grandmother either.  In a way, he rescued her as a character for me — helped me understand her emotional and psychological reality as a wife and mother.”

At this point, Berliner, aside from his own obsessive collecting and building of his own personal archives, had become what he calls “the keeper of the memory” for his family. “I have a large filing cabinet filled with important family photographs, documents and letters that have been passed down (somehow ending up with me) from both sets of my grandparents.  Naturally, I’ve had them catalogued, annotated, translated and preserved.”

This role, which began while making Intimate Stranger, continued into his next film, this one about his own father, called Nobody’s Business. Much of the film is structured around Berliner’s own attempts to not only understand his family history, but to get his obstinate father to care about his family history. When Berliner, through much research in various genealogical archives, obtains photographs of his Polish great-grandparents, he shows them to his father – who never met his grandparents nor ever saw pictures of them – for the first time and his father responds, “He looks like another old Jew with a yarmulke! . . . That’s all. . . . I have no emotional response. . . . They could be taken out of a storybook, I don’t know them. . . . They mean nothing to me.”  Berliner later reflected that, “he was saying that the faces of his grandparents were, in effect, generic. That without any specific history, experience, or memory to hold onto, they might as well have been strangers. Their reality as relatives, as people, as faces, and as photographic images was absolutely arbitrary.”


By becoming the family’s “keeper of the memory”, Berliner began searching through more archives, setting out find that specific history, experience, and memory to tie these faces to. The film is not only about this however; it is more broadly about the intersection of family, memory, archival materials, and the work these things can do to provide meaning in one’s own life. The film makes extensive use of home movie footage taken by his father when Alan was little. There is a point in the film when Berliner asks his father why he shot so many home movies so many years ago. He never answers the question; he only describes how painful they are for him to look at thirty-five years later. “Whether he knew it or not, whether he liked it or not, the home movies my father took belonged to everyone in my family.  To anyone who wanted to look at them.  To whoever needed to look at them. And as the trail of my films has so clearly revealed, that turned out to be me.”

Things such as home movies and old photographs of his family only form part of Berliner’s films. He spends equal time tending to his own collection – organizing, preserving, digitizing, logging, categorizing, backing up – as he does diving into other peoples’ and institutions’ archival collections. When he makes a film now, he says, he collects anything and everything that he can find that has to do with that thing before doing almost anything else. He searches archives, he reads books and essays, he listens to radio programs, he talks to experts – in short, he assembles a sort of sub-archive from which he will draw out the pieces of his film. For instance, his film Wide Awake is about his struggle with insomnia, and so naturally, he set out to gather as much information and imagery tied to sleep, insomnia, waking up, dreaming, and anything else related, that he could find. Importantly, he sought out visual materials that would represent sleep or sleep-related ideas (or even his own dreams); some of these materials came from his own archives, but many – and there are thousands of different images – came from other film collections, such as Getty, Prelinger, Skip Elsheimer, Oddball Films, and even Hollywood studios.


He told me that the best part of searching through film archives is that you would request to see a given clip, and as they were cueing up the tape, he would see all kinds of other images that up until that very moment “you never imagined or never thought would be applicable” to his film, but that he knew he had to have. For Berliner, this “treasure-hunting” as he calls it, provides the real joy of working in the archives: the sense of finding something unexpected and of making connections between images and ideas that he would never have thought of on his own.


Berliner told me that he doesn’t really add much to his collection anymore (the daily New York Times ritual notwithstanding). As he says, “I’m not in this as an institution, or to make money from these things; I just collect for my own uses. Sure, maybe my old copies of Life magazine have monetary value, but that’s not why I keep them. I keep them because I think someday I will make something new with them.” Also, he claims that he’s mostly stopped by virtue of the fact that he’s “run out of room”; his shelves are full and he’s happy with what he’s got. However, unwittingly, he has himself come to be viewed by others as an archival institution in his own right.


When I visited him in his studio, he picked up his mail while we were on the way out, and in it was a package containing an old family photo album; somebody had found it and thought Berliner would put it to better use than he or she ever would. I got the feeling that this was not an unusual occurrence at all. Even more remarkable is a story he told me later. After Wide Awake was released, he was contacted by a woman who had a large collection of her own family’s photos, documents, and picture albums. She didn’t want to give them to her sister because she feared that she would eventually just throw them out; and she couldn’t find a museum, historical society, or other institution that was interested in them. Her solution, reached after only a brief email correspondence with Berliner – a man whom she had never met – was to give the whole collection to him. He does not yet possess these materials, but the woman has written him into her will, and when she passes away, he will take ownership of this family’s memorabilia – in a sense, he will also become that family’s “keeper of the memory”. It says something about the desire of some people to preserve their family history and yet a systematic lack of any reliable way in which to do it: with no better options apparent, she chose to give everything to a stranger she saw in a movie in the hopes that he will hold onto it and maybe someday make something out of it.

After he told me this, I asked Berliner what he thinks will become of his own archive when he passes away. He said that it wasn’t up to him, but to his wife and son; much like his father’s home movies had belonged not to his father but to the entire family, Berliner sees his collection as belonging to those who will hopefully someday find a way to make something new out of its parts. He has even toyed with the idea of establishing a residency of sorts in his studio, so that artists or filmmaker’s can spend time with his collection and make their own works.

Referring to his own efforts over the years, he states: “It takes a lot of time, effort and energy to keep track of all of these things, but I do it for one simple reason: I believe that somehow — even though I don’t know exactly why at the moment I find them — that any of these sounds, images, photographs, objects or tidbits of information — can and will be of use to me in my work one day.” This is a philosophy that has guided the construction of so many wonderful films, and, he hopes, will continue to guide future generations to create more things out of otherwise-forgotten materials of the past.

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