The first press screening of acclaimed personal documentarian Alan Berliner's latest did not go well. The 150-seat screening room at the Holiday Village started out about half full, but after a projection snafu and a slow first act, about half of the initial audience had trickled out by the film's end. It's too bad: whilst Wide Awake, Berliner's meditation on his 40 year struggle with insomnia, can't quite match up to his earlier works (and really, very few films stand a chance of equaling his own Nobody's Business, which to my mind is nearly flawless) there's some great stuff there. But with distribution already set up with HBO, Berliner would be well served to shave 15-20 minutes off of his far-too-long running time. At a tightly packed 60-70 minutes, I think Wide Awake could do very well, especially on TV; but at its current 90 minute length, it too often feels like something of a snore.
Not that the problem of making an engaging film about sleep, and his own deprivation thereof, hasn't ... well ... kept Berliner up at night. In one of the film's best scenes, Berliner describes flying, after a sleepless night, to a college to give a lecture on his films. But when he gets there, the lecture hall is almost empty, and when, shortly after the screening starts, he turns a night vision camera on the 25 or so students in the room, he finds that at least half of them have fallen asleep. A sleep expert later tells him not to take it personally – "college students get the least sleep of any of us ... anything you can do to make it conducive to sleep – darkness, warmth, a boring films – and they go right out" – but could there be anything more painful to an insomniac filmmaker than watching his own work – most of which he produces in the middle of the night when he can't sleep – send a bunch of kids into an instant slumber?
It's possibly Berliner's most personal documentary ever. Though he's investigated his own family in other films, to my knowledge Berliner's never turned the camera on himself in quite such a penetrating manner. Of course, there's a danger there: anyone not familiar with the realm of experimental personal documentary (by now a discreet genre of art film which Berliner's work crucially helped to shape) will wonder how Berliner thinks he can get away with such solipsistic narcissism. But there's something undeniably engaging about the way Berliner presents his fatigue-drunk persona. It's not enough that he sits in his underwear, speaking passages clearly scripted as "natural" directly to the camera with a big radio-style microphone in his face – it's that, as the film goes on, he breaks from the script increasingly often to yell at his crew or to fuss over a line reading. This kind of intertextual awareness doesn't often creep into films like this – if we see a director like Berliner talking into the camera, we're usually just supposed to believe that he's talking directly to us, and directly off the top of his head. Berliner is not just being self-referential by allowing us to see the seams; he's being self-destructive.
It's impossible to tell if the film's best scene is scripted or impromptu, but it doesn't seem to matter. About three-quarters in, Berliner announces that he's going downstairs for his first cup of coffee in thirty years – he apparently swore off the stuff at 17 because he didn't like the way caffeine made him feel. Once the caffeine starts to course through his system (Berliner drinks just one small, bodega paper cup), Berliner leaps to his feet and proceeds to run show and tell on seemingly every item lining the ample, shelved walls of his loft apartment. Talking at breakneck speed about his collections of found family albums and miniature watch parts (which he reaches into and filters through his fingers like sand, saying, "These are my favorite things in the world"), Berliner suddenly stops and looks directly into the camera. "Just so you know, I am totally buzzing right now," he says. Um, yeah – we noticed.
The key problem, for both the film and for Berliner, is that although he knows that he has to at least approach getting cured both to appease his wife, and to have a decent ending for his film, he clearly doesn't want his insomnia to go away. "Sometimes," he says late in the thing, "I feel like I'm addicted to being awake." Though he heavily manages his baby son's sleep schedule, Berliner continues to stay up all night. When he's holding his kid, he's got this wistful look on his face, as though he's sleeping vicariously through the baby. It's hard, then, to care about Berliner's predicament on anything deeper than an intellectual level; when he says at the end that he's going to try to change his lifestyle based on his doctors' recommendations and thus get some sleep, it's even harder to believe him.
Others on Wide Awake: The Hollywood Reporter's James Greenberg found the film fascinating, as did David D'Arcy. Greenberg described the film as "an open window on the mind of an obsessed and tortured artist," while D'Arcy - writing at GreenCine Daily - found himself seduced by the film's deceptively wide-ranging nature.