Insomnia. It’s a bitch. Last night it really was a bitch or at least began with one. I woke in the middle of the night to the swelling — not the itching, but the almost painful swelling — of five massive mosquito bites. One smack in the middle of my forehead and four others that formed a trail on the left side of my body from shoulder to palm. The mosquito had managed to get her proboscis into the thick skin of my palm, that’s the determined sort of bloodsucker she was and until I found her two hours later, daddy longlegs-sized and bloated, hugging the wall behind a lampshade, the thought of sharing a room with her, wherever she was, kept me wide, wide awake. After I flattened her, the thought of her friends’ counterattack and the wind of the fan I directed toward the bed to ward off others kept me awake for an additional two hours. Another sleepless night, a needlessly sleepless one. There were no other mosquitoes.
I’ve been an insomniac for the past year and a half. It was only two weeks ago that I began to sleep without the succor of sleeping pills, pills I popped with Nancy Spungen’s dedication and sometimes shared with a sleepless man I dated last fall, whispering, “Here, Sid,” as I passed him half a tab. The medication wasn’t even always that effective.
I’m pretty sure last night was just a blip in an otherwise positive trend — fear of mosquitoes is merely an occasion for one night’s sleeplessness. Insomnia isn’t really insomnia if you can pinpoint its cause. Real insomnia is dark and general; nothing in particular is worthy of the feeling. The missing “off” switch. The mind’s hand gropes. I know very well what it is to be unable to sleep.
So it was with a misery-loves-company sort of interest that I went to Walter Reade Theater’s May 19th screening of Alan Berliner’s “Wide Awake,” a documentary that chronicles Berliner’s struggles with insomnia (the film, which was nominated for Sundance’s 2006 Grand Jury Prize, has since aired on HBO). Berliner is a workaholic and, we learn late in the film, an obsessive organizer. Berliner is also preoccupied with his sleeplessness and the film focuses as much on his inability to sleep as it does on his preoccupation with his inability to sleep. This dual focus makes sense to me. Most insomniacs I know are obsessed with their inability to sleep in such a way that their obsession only intensifies their sleeplessness.
“…formless speeches filling page after page, over which the eye skims like so many flies over the Dust Bowl…” — Nabokov, 1969
The film shows Berliner tossing about in bed, unable to go to sleep, unable to get out of bed early; with his family at a table eating what appears to be Chinese food as he talks with them about his sleeplessness; with sleep therapists who talk about sleeplessness and ways of treating it; with his infant son as the boy soundly sleeps; and with his wife. In one scene, Berliner films his wife as she uses the toilet; although the film is in need of more intimacy, it is unclear what role intimacy of this kind might play in it. In fact, it is unclear what role many of the film’s scenes and images play in the film.
“Wide Awake” relies heavily on archival footage — black and white images of ticking clocks and tired people and alarms and other relevant and not-so-relevant stuff from movies and commercials punctuate the film’s other, more contemporary and — I don’t know why I’m obsessed with this word today — intimate scenes. (And this is a qualified intimacy; too much of the film is staged. I yearned to see Berliner and his family get up from that damn table and go for a walk.)
What I came to realize as I watched the film is that nostalgia — especially nostalgia for images that recall some of the most rigid and to my mind awful eras in American history — the fifties, for example — is not only really annoying, but also really limiting. It’s 2007. Old stuff can be nice, but let’s focus on our own imagery.
Of course, I have to dig up somebody else’s ideas to help explain why willy-nilly use of archival footage bugs me so much. (I’ve seen such use elsewhere, so many places, but where? Where?). Nabokov, an insomniac himself, said in a 1969 Time interview something about the use of dialogue in fiction that might also be said of archival footage in film:
Dialogue can be delightful if dramatically or comically stylized or artistically blended with descriptive prose; in other words, if it is a feature of style or structure in a given work. If not, then it is nothing but automatic typewriting, formless speeches filling page after page, over which the eye skims like a flying saucer over the Dust Bowl.
There seems to be very little motivating Berliner’s use of archival footage in the film; little, that is, besides his obsession with old images, which I suppose is something. Still, the footage plays a discernible role — it is a feature of the film’s style — only to the extent that it is evidence of a tendency toward obsessiveness; and we can’t recognize it as evidence until Berliner reveals, too late in the film, that he is consumed with filing and organizing the footage he’s collected. His mind likes to stay busy. The thing is, it’s not really the images that are keeping Berliner awake. It simply couldn’t be. A touch of the footage Berliner loves so much along with some early context for its inclusion would have been enough. Just as insomnia is too vague and almost existential a problem for mosquitoes, it is too vague and existential a problem for so much archival footage.
I’m Feeling Very Sleepy…
The Walter Reade screening was followed by a question and answer period with Berliner and sleep scientist Dr. Art Spielman. Between Berliner, Spielman, and a noticeably inept moderator (I think she used the term “personal collage” or something like it to describe the film), I remember Spielman having the most interesting things to say. Experts often steal the show that way. But even Spielman couldn’t hold the attention of at least one audience member. Toward the end of the post-screening discussion I noticed that a friend who sat in the row in front of mine was grinning. At what, I could not tell. She later told me that the man sitting next to her had fallen asleep.
— Suzanne Menghraj