200 minutes of cinema-verite on the life of documentarist Ed Pincus and his immediate family from 1971 to 1976.
Article from the New York Times in 1982
ED PINCUS MAKES ‘DIARIES’ OF HIS OWN LIFE
By VINCENT CANBY
”DIARIES,” which opens today in the Agee Room at the Bleecker Street Cinema, is Ed Pincus’s filmed record of his own life and times from 1971 through 1976. It’s a nearly 3 1/2-hour memoir about Ed, his wife Jane, their two children, Sami and Ben, their dog Tapper, some of the women Ed had affairs with, several colleagues, as well as Ed’s travels to and from Vermont, California, Arizona and New York City.
Though it’s long, it’s surprisingly easy to endure. It’s entertaining, but it’s also troubling both for esthetic and for moral reasons, which may be the same things.
The concept of the film belongs very much to the movie-mad 1960’s and early 1970’s, the time of Jean-Luc Godard, who forever changed the look and sound of cinema, and the time when newly portable camera and sound equipment made possible the cinema verite revolution. Truth, which had been eluding mankind for several millenia, was now at hand, or so many young film makers believed. All one had to do was to go out and point a camera at it.
Some fascinating films came out of that era – films by Albert and David Maysles, Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, Jonas and Adolfas Mekas and Richard Leacock. Mr. Leacock, a film-teaching colleague of Mr. Pincus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appears in ”Diaries” from time to time.
The most poignant film of that time was – and remains – Jim McBride’s brilliant 1967 satire, ”David Holzman’s Diary,” a hilarious mock-cinema-verite fiction about a solemn young film maker who, rather like Ed Pincus, decides to find the truth of his life by filming it in minute detail.
Actually I’m not at all sure that Mr. Pincus, a Boston-based maker of documentaries (”Black Natchez,” ”One Step Away”) who has taught at M.I.T. and Harvard, was looking for truth more than he was simply interested in recording some of the looks and sounds of his time. Whatever his goal, ”Diaries” inevitably reveals a lot more and a lot less than meets the eye and the ear. (Though ”Diaries” covers some of the same events explored in ”Life and Other Anxieties,” an earlier film made by Mr. Pincus and Steven Ascher, the new film is not a repetition.)
It’s difficult to understand why anyone would want to make a movie of his own life, unless one were a film maker in search of a subject. It’s not the same thing as writing about one’s life. The camera is not a pen or even a typewriter. Unlike writing, filming has nothing to do with repose and reflection, except when the filmed material is subsequently shaped in the editing room.
The camera takes over any space it inhabits in much the same way that a stranger does. It destroys all privacy. At the beginning of ”Diaries,” Jane Pincus grumbles that she feels as if she should be acting and she doesn’t like the idea. The camera may record everything but it understands nothing. It’s a mechanical extension of the person holding it, whom it transforms into an alien. The camera can go beneath the skin only to the extent that the person being photographed welcomes it or becomes oblivious to its presense.
On the surface, ”Diaries” is five years in the history of the Pincus family, during which Ed and Jane raise their children, attend funerals and weddings, break up briefly, watch anti-Vietnam demonstrations and the rise and fall of former President Richard M. Nixon, and talk. Ed, Jane and their friends talk endlessly. They don’t talk about Vietnam much, at least when the camera is on them. They talk mostly about themselves, about their relationships and their feelings. When Ed admits to having an affair, it’s Jane who suffers the guilt, which seems to be one of the burdens of their enlightened age.
The talk is not great, but it sounds absolutely accurate and painfully authentic. Says Ann, one of Ed’s lovers, long after their affair is over, ”Like I think in our present lives any interaction we have is heavier for me than for you.” One listens to this and cringes. Is there any hope for a middle class that talks such nonsense?
Among other things, ”Diaries” is about a group of comparatively affluent, well-educated Americans attempting to think and, instead, becoming fatally entangled in their own jargon.
Ed, we learn, is afraid of his feelings, which may be why he puts a camera between himself and his life. Making a movie thus becomes a substitute for dealing coherently with the world around him. Jane, who spends a lot of her time working out the hostility she feels toward Ed, his girl friends and the film itself, discovers in the course of ”Diaries” that she frequently sneezes to avoid – I think the phrase would be – verbalizing a need.
In that Ed, Jane and their friends often sound much more foolish than they probably are, ”Diaries” does not tell the truth. As a docuementary, it records only the superficial evidence of their lives. It takes fiction, something like John Sayles’s ”The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” to get the truth. For reasons of his own, Mr. Pincus shows us very little of Ed, Jane and their friends being aware of the world around them, or even making their livings, which is what most of us spend most of our lives doing.
It’s no accident that the film’s most riveting moments have nothing to do with wobbly self-analysis but with the chance appearance of Dennis Sweeney, the young civil rights activist Ed met and worked with in the 1960’s. Mr. Sweeney comes to see Ed and Jane in Boston to discus his problem: he’s receiving threatening messages through his teeth.
Ed and Jane try to talk rationally to Dennis, They suggest that he seek what’s euphemistically called ”help.” Later they learn that Deenis is blaming them for those messages and is threatening them and their children. Not long afterward, they hear that Dennis Sweeney has murdered former Representative Allard Lowenstein.
These brief sequences illuminate the film. They are real drama. They have the effect of shutting off, if only temporarily, the obsessive self-absorption that is otherwise built into this kind of movie making. According to ”Diaries,” Ed and Jane remain largely unaffected by Vietnam, Watergate, the cost of living and almost everything else relating to real life.
Having said that, however, I should add that ”Diaries” is also a fascinating, technically expert recollection of the not-so-far-off 70’s. It’s not only about the generation once labeled ”me”; it’s a demonstration of it. Me, Me, Me! DIARIES, documentary directed by Ed Pincus; edited by Mr. Pincus, Moe Shore and Ann Schaetzel. Running time: 200 minutes. This film is not rated. At the Agee Room, Bleecker Street Cinema, 144 Bleecker Street.
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