CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Family matters: Alan Berliner's father figuring

In filmmaker Alan Berliner's 2001 eulogy for his father, Oscar, the subject of Berliner's Emmy award-winning 1996 documentary, Nobody's Business, he remarked, "Observing my father over the years taught me to see every life as an equation." What we learn in the funny and poignant Nobody'sBusiness is Berliner's dad was one tough problem with no interest in being solved.

Scheduled for the first night of this year's Virginia Film Festival, Nobody's Business is an utterly riveting examination of family, parent-child relationships, and generational differences. It's also a masterpiece (regular readers may not recognize that word as part of my vocabulary) of innovative filmmaking with a pitch-perfect editing.

Berliner splices talking-head interviews (shot in extreme close-up for added intimacy), old black-and-white newsreel footage, family snapshots, home movies, and symbolic images– trees, boxing matches, sewing machines– to create a seamless visual experience that engages viewers for 60 dazzling minutes. 

The soundtrack is equally inventive, combining interviews with sounds related to time (the ticking of a second hand, the tock of a metronome, the hum of a film projector's progress) and bells (an alarm clock, a timer's ding, a boxing bell). One particularly effective sequence features voiceovers of Berliner's parents talking about their divorce while newsreel footage shows a 1950s-style bungalow crashing into the ocean while the ground beneath it crumbles.

At the heart of Nobody's Business is Oscar Berliner, a hardscrabble man adamantly opposed to admitting an inch of specificity about his life. When the younger Berliner, pushes, all he gets from his father is "Who cares?" "N-O, no," and "It's nobody's business!" Early in the film, incredulous at his lack of interest, Alan persists in telling his father about the family's European roots, and Oscar informs him that if that's what this film is about, it will be "a flop."

And so father and son spar, as fathers and sons have always sparred. Like Cecil McDonald's photographs at Second Street Gallery, Nobody's Business is specific to Berliner's own family, yet it explores issues with which all viewers can empathize. A cousin describes Alan and Oscar's relationship as "an irresistible force meeting an immovable object." Yet, despite Oscar's can't-be-bothered attitude, an underlying current of love, respect, and tenderness charges through the vibrant film. 

As another cousin explains, family is "when one of us pisses the other off, and we accept it."

Alan Berliner will be on hand to discuss Nobody's Business when it screens Thursday, November 1.

Filmmaker Alan Berliner screens and discusses Nobody's Business, at 7:15pm November 1 at the Regal Downtown. He also screens The Family Album at Vinegar Hill at 10am November 2, and Wide Awake at the Regal Downtown at 10:15pm oon November 2. In addition, the University of Virginia Art Museum's New Media Gallery features Berliner's short films, November 3-December 22. 800-882-3378.