A quiet collection of screams: Alan Berliner’s ‘Letter to the Editor’ showcases a Brooklyn native’s obsession
Alan Berliner’s new documentary, “Letter to the Editor,” grew out of the 63-year-old filmmaker’s passion for clipping photographs from The New York Times. The Brooklyn-born Berliner began when he was 23 years old. At some point during those 40 years, he started archiving his unusual collection.
The photos appear in every frame of the film as individual images held for several seconds, and at other times in quick montages, accompanied by music or the sound of a bell or a sewing machine. The documentary, five years in the making, is as much about the filmmaker’s love of newsprint as it is about the photographs. In the opening sequence, Berliner’s signature voice-over narration is addressed to an imagined future audience for whom the newspaper is an artifact.
“Letter to the Editor” will air this December on HBO. Berliner spoke with the Brooklyn Eagle at the Toronto International Film Festival, after the documentary’s world premiere on Sept. 8.
Berliner’s feature-length documentaries are all intensely personal explorations —“The Sweetest Sound” (2001) is about his frustration with being mistaken for others with the same name; “Wide Awake” (2006) is a contemplation of insomnia in which Berliner confesses that every one of his films has been made at night.
His documentaries are notable for their repetition of sounds, such as that of a metronome or a ticking clock, used to punctuate ideas. The frequency of these sounds creates another level on which to understand his films. It is a second musical track, sometimes conveying emotion and at other times lending deeper meaning to the subject matter.
In “Letter to the Editor,” the most memorable sound is the scream.
In some photos, people are seen with their mouths open. Berliner adds ululations to the film’s soundtrack, animating and magnifying the emotion expressed in the image.
“You can’t look at as many newspaper photographs as I have, and study them as closely, and not see and feel that a scream has multifarious dimensions,” he said. “It is an existential sound that is true to many of life’s predicaments. People scream in response to mortality, illness and death, but also victory.”
Berliner devotes a brief segment in “Letter to the Editor” to the “music of the news,” the introductory tunes or sounds associated with radio and broadcast news from New York City stations that he heard as a child.
Berliner does not know how many photos he has collected, and the dozen or so segments in the documentary are just a sampling of the 1,600 categories he has created for the purpose of archiving them.
A particularly intriguing category, “emptiness,” is introduced with the picture of an oddly shaped tree, taken in winter.
“I see a tree in that tree, a creature from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ a genealogical diagram, and I see axons and dendrites and the Tree of Life,” Berliner said. “Like ‘emptiness,’ some categories are based on feeling and have, for lack of a better word, poetic resonance. The images just felt post-apocalyptic.”
Berliner’s segments of related photos deconstruct the pastiche that is the newspaper; even devoid of captions and juxtaposed, the photos are variations on a theme. Asked whether he is an archivist or a gleaner, Berliner said: “The archivist can only catalog, but the gleaner is the one who is doing the picking. In storytelling, it’s all about context.”
Meaning, to Berliner, is conjured in the juxtaposition of segments in the film: dance photos follow images of 9/11, an event through which each New Yorker suddenly became the news story, an eyewitness to history. Those images are followed by a segment on spousal abuse where the scream is much in evidence.
Berliner is erudite and decorous in his speech and manner, often correcting himself in mid-sentence, and these aspects of his personality are evinced in his work through an astonishing attention to detail, apparent in all of his documentaries. In the documentary’s narration, the filmmaker speaks of the effect on his photos created by the text or image from the opposite side of the page, and on the saying “no news is good news.” A reflexive quality is revealed when he explains his motives, for instance, for sourcing the documentary’s music from “inside” the photos.
This filmmaker of the close reading, whose documentaries are a delight for journalists and scholars, said that for the first time in his career he relied mainly on intuition.
“It’s taken maybe my entire career to get to intuition,” he said. “This film was the hardest thing I have ever done in my whole life, but I can also tell you that among the challenges and the difficulty, I’ve never had more fun.”
Maria Garcia is a New York City-based freelance film critic. Her writing appears in Cineaste and the LA Times. She is the author of Cinematic Quests for “Identity: The Hero’s Encounter with the Beast.”
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