Saturday, October 11, 2008

What's in a name?

I noticed that today is the birthday of documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner, which brings up the chance to recommend a fun little documentary he made, The Sweetest Sound.

The genesis of this movie is that Berliner's parents were always getting congratulated for things that some prominent dentist did, even they had no idea who this dentist was. The reason is that the dentist, and the filmmaker, share the name Alan Berliner. This led the filmmaker to an inspiration: try to find all the people he can named Alan (or variations of the spelling) Berliner, and invite them together for a dinner -- and that is nominally what The Sweetest Sound is about.

In reality, though, it's really about names. Intertwined with the story of the filmmaker finding all his Doppelgänger and bringing them together, we learn about some of the things that names can mean to people. Apparently, there's a nationwide club for people named "Jim Smith", appropriately named the Jim Smith Society. Who knew? Other topics Berliner hits upon are people with unorthodox names, and the question of whether or not immigration officials at Ellis Island really changed peoples names to make them sound less ethnic. Perhaps the most interesting, however, is when the documentarian goes around asking people what they think of when they think about somebody named Alan. The responses aren't necessarily flattering, and not necessarily accurate, either.

Or are they inaccurate? Eventually, we do get to see the gathering of the Alan Berliners, and find out just how many of the stereotypes fit. It turns out they are all male -- there are no gender-bending names here. As for any other preconceptions you might have about the Alans of the world? I'll let you discover those for yourself.

The Sweetest Sound is a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, despite the fact that the topic of names can bring up some thought-provoking questions. The result of not taking itself too seriously, however, is to the movie's benefit, as it's quite fun and light. It is available on DVD, but because documentaries aren't a topic of that much interest, the resulting low print run leads to higher prices.

No comments: