Personal Effects

Ed Pincus on his magnum opus Diaries (1971-1976)
by Scott MacDonald  posted June 21, 2012
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I don't remember precisely when or where I first saw Ed Pincus's Diaries (1971-1976) (1980), but I do remember being astonished by the film—by its openness, its honesty—and simultaneously envious and frightened of the open marriage that is the focus of at least the first half of the film. The willingness of Ed and Jane Pincus to work at re-thinking their marriage—and it did seem work to do this—was impressive, and the five-year-long experience the film documents seemed full of surprises, both in terms of the personal relationships that are the ostensible focus of the film and in terms of how the footage was shot and edited. Indeed, my fascination with the film was so much a function of the melodrama of the Pincuses' personal lives that it was not until much later that I realized that Diaries is also a beautiful film, both in its sense of family life and in its inventive sense of composition and its subtle editing—and, along with Ross McElwee's Time Indefinite (1994) and Robb Moss's The Same River Twice (2003), one of the three masterworks of Cambridge personal documentary.

During the decades since my first seeing Diaries—I assume on the film's initial release in 1981, in New York City—I wondered about Pincus and the film, which had made something of a splash and then, along with its maker, seemed to disappear. Of course, Pincus's colleagues at MIT, where he had taught since 1968, and his friends and family were aware of what had happened to Pincus, which is one of the stranger episodes in the annals of American independent cinema. As Pincus was beginning to consider himself a filmmaker (he was a philosophy student at Brown University, then at Harvard), a neighbor of his, Dennis Sweeney, suggested that he go to Natchez, Mississippi, to film the civil rights struggle going on there; and Pincus and his friend David Neuman jumped at the suggestion. As the years went by, Sweeney, who appears in Pincus and Neuman's direct cinema film, Black Natchez (1967), became increasingly delusional and by the 1970s was threatening the lives of both the Pincus family and civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein (who had been Sweeney's mentor at Stanford). The Pincuses moved to rural Vermont, where Ed Pincus began a flower-raising business, which he still runs, and struggled to maintain a low profile at MIT and as a filmmaker. On March 14, 1980, Sweeney killed then-United States Congressman Lowenstein in his New York office, turned himself into police, and was sent to prison. Pincus would not return to filmmaking in earnest for a quarter-century, until he teamed up with Lucia Small in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster to shoot what became The Axe in the Attic (2007).

Black Natchez

Black Natchez

This interview began in April 2009, when Pincus was a guest in my class at Harvard in the history of documentary, and was expanded first in a personal interview session, and later online. (The final question is from the film scholar Dominique Bluher, who was visiting my class.)

When Jane and Ed Pincus presented Diaries at Hamilton College in October 2010, I was interested, for all the obvious reasons, in getting Jane's take on the experience of making the film. The interview with her follows the one with Ed below.

Diaries (1971-1976) is being shown at Light Industry in Brooklyn on Saturday, June 23, at 6 p.m.

Interview With Ed Pincus

Diaries is your magnum opus, not just in the sense that it's your longest film, and I think your best film, but because of the nature of the project. I was surprised to learn that in setting out to make Diaries, you gave yourself five years to shoot and five years to edit.

The deal I made with all my subjects was that I would be filming for five years and then would wait five years more before releasing a finished film. "Magnum opus"—that's exactly what it was. It was meant to be epic, though in retrospect, I wish the result could have been epic in under two hours!

Diaries (1971-1976)

Diaries (1971-1976)

It's not a stretch to watch the film.

You're older so you're part of a generation that's more patient, but the three-plus-hours length limited theatrical distribution; Diaries was a tough film to sell.

Did you shoot for the five years and edit from 1976 to 1980?

No, it sat in the can for four or five years; I edited it during part of that last year. The editing wasn't that difficult. Recently, the Pompidou Center in Paris did a show on early cinema vérité, which ended with Diaries. I told them I thought that the film was finished in 1981, and they said, "No, it says 1980 on the film, and it's important for us that it be 1980." So I said, okay. But I'm not sure—I think actually it was finished in 1981.

You must have looked at the material as you shot it, just to see what you had.

I looked at a minimal amount; Steve Ascher did the syncing up. I'd ask if the exposure was okay and that's about it.

I played a trick on the class the first night of the course; I showed David Holzman's Diary. Though the McBride film is a fiction, the character of David Holzman is, in a general way, quite close to your persona in Diaries. Like you, David wants to use filmmaking as a way to understand his personal life. I was surprised to see that Jim McBride actually has a credit on Diaries, and is mentioned in it. Did you know him, and did that film have any influence on Diaries?

David Holzman's Diary didn't have any influence on me, so far as I know. Jim was a friend of David's.

How well did you know McBride?

I stayed with Jim for a week or so in Northern California. He filmed the sequence with his wife Clarissa on an undulating waterbed with a cow's skull above.

Basically, Diaries chronicles your marriage with Jane. How long were you married when you started Diaries?

We were married in 1960, and I started Diaries in 1971, so it was 11 years, but it felt like 6,000.

Diaries (1971-1976)

Diaries (1971-1976)

In a way there are two projects that seem to be getting started around 1971: your film and your open marriage. Whose idea was the open marriage, and does what we see in the film accurately represent its trajectory?

The notion that no one person could fulfill another's needs (whatever that meant) was in the air. Most of our friends split up—we stayed together.

Were you in fact the first to have an affair?


And did Jane's involvement with the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective play into the open marriage?

I sometimes think a better title would have been "What Happened When the Winds of the Women's Movement Blew Open My Front Door."

Because of the expense in the early years of putting a crew out in the field, films had to be shot in a week or two or maybe a month, which was a long time. So when something meaningful happened during a shoot, the filmmakers would feel the equivalent of "gotcha!" That kind of shooting created a vision of people that was not my vision of how people change or try to change, so a very important part of the Diaries project was wanting to see what changes happened over a five-year period in people's lives, in the tenor of their politics, and perhaps in the way a filmmaker shoots.

Especially at the beginning I wanted to film what Jane was doing with the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective. I asked if I could film the collective, and they said, "No way!" Now they all regret it.

During the first half of the film, the focus is the open marriage, but in the second half, you focus more on your kids, and the film is more conventionally domestic. The dog is a fantastic clock in the second half; we watch it grow up.


In a way Diaries is a film about Jane. The opening is her talking about how she feels manipulated by the camera, how she's afraid of how the camera will reveal her; by the end of Diaries she's grown accustomed to the camera, and all the distractions from earlier in the marriage seem to have faded. The film charts the emergence, or re-emergence, I guess, since it starts 11 years into the marriage, of your respect for Jane and for your relationship.

You're correct. Diaries is really a love story. In fact, the structuring you've described wasn't entirely true to the rushes. I made Jane the heroine in the film, and I made myself the villain, though "villain" is a bit of an exaggeration. Let's say I prettied Jane up a bit to make this distinction work. That's the most serious distortion in the film—and it's not that serious. If you looked at the unedited rushes, I think I would have come off a little better and Jane would have come off a little worse. Not a whole lot. The film was meant to be uncompromising, but it did have small compromises.

Diaries (1971-1976)

Diaries (1971-1976)

I did think it was important to get Diaries down to a single sitting. When I looked at it the last time, I thought I could probably get 20 minutes out of it, or 30 minutes. But I do love the different pacings in the film; they embody the way time changes and the way different episodes of your life go quickly or slowly. The film becomes about memory too and how sometimes you have intense memories about something and then blanks, then semi-intense memories, and so on. To shorten the film definitely would have been to give up something.

Have Sami and Ben watched the movie, and what were their reactions? And have their reactions evolved through time?

A wonderful question. Sami has a hard time with the movie, and I don't really know why. When Ben went off to college, one of his college chums said, "How does it feel to be in one of the most important movies ever made?" [laughter]. I think that predisposed him to like Diaries. I think he still likes it (right now, he runs a martial arts studio in Burlington, Vermont). His wife looked at the first 45 minutes of Diaries, cried, and didn't want to see anymore.

You see the seeds of Sami's reaction to the film in the film; you almost never see her except when she's performing. In some sense she always wanted to keep control. Ben didn't care.

Sami has a poignant scene at the end, where she tries her hand at conflict resolution when Ben is upset. She tells you to quit filming him because it makes him worse.

That's one of my favorite parts of the film.

Did you feel that documenting your experiences changed the way you dealt with things?

Well, when I first started the film, I was hoping it wouldn't. When I began, I didn't think I was going to be in the film at all—what a naive thought that was!

To put some of this in historical perspective, the women's movement had come and there was this notion that the personal is the political, and there was also this feeling that you shouldn't be filming the Other. It was important to examine your own life. Also, previous to the women's movement, there was a branch of SDS, the Weathermen, whose slogan was "The pig is in us." We were supposed to look inside.

So all of a sudden I found I had to be a subject. Up until Diaries, I had never talked while I filmed, and I had to start talking. I had to relearn how to be both a filmmaker and a human being. Ideally you learn to work with the camera in such a way that it becomes part of you. You have good days, you have bad days, but on a good day you're not thinking of color balance or whatever, you just do stuff. For this film I had to reclaim that ability and be able to talk as a human being and interact with my friends while filming. That was a struggle. At the beginning of Diaries you can hear a kind of strangeness in my voice that later disappears (you wouldn't pick it up if you didn't know me, but I can hear the changes).

I didn't think at all about a finished film while I was shooting. I had no idea what I was doing beyond shooting; the shooting itself was the experiment. At the beginning filming was easier, then it became a burden. There's a section called "Small Events of Days at Home" in which I make a commitment to shoot something for 30 days in a row. I think half of what's in that section was shot at 11:59 at night, because I'd forget to shoot or couldn't find anything I wanted to shoot.

It may seem that I was shooting all the time, but in fact there was relatively little footage shot for Diaries. In five years I shot something like 32 hours; for The Axe in the Attic Lucia and I shot 180 hours in 60 days.

When I edited Diaries, I was trying to keep that feeling of rushes, of dailies, of unedited footage, and be true to the footage while shortening the film. In the end I thought that I was true to the footage, not that the viewer cares about that, but it mattered to me as part of the experiment I was doing.

Amazing things happen in the editing room when you look at rushes, things that couldn't have been preconceived, natural juxtapositions that end up having meaning. Of course, it's in the nature of human consciousness to see connections and there are many amazing connections in Diaries that are totally happenstance.

You found a way to have a voice in the film without being a conventional narrator, in two different ways. One is that you periodically say something, usually as a transition from one sequence to the next or as a setup for the passage that follows. And in other instances you use text, which we first see in your work in One Step Away. Had you seen Jonas Mekas's diary films? He found intertitles very useful.

I might have seen his diaries, but Godard was probably the influence on my use of text. In One Step Away David and I wanted to structure the film as a series of anecdotes. And we thought titles were the perfect way to do that. In Diaries the chapter titles are meant to be a fun way of distancing the intimacy a bit. That's the way I saw Godard using titles: as a distancing device. I think it's in Rousseau's letter to D'Alembert, where he talks about how the problem with art is that people go to the theater and feel all the right emotions, and then they go home and they're the same old sons of bitches they've always been. To me that's always been the dominating question for me in documentary on social and personal issues: How do you close the gap between what you feel in the theater and what you do when you've left the theater? Godard tried to cope with that gap through the use of titles, and by having people talk to the camera, his ways of breaking out of the conventional narrative experience.

Have you ever seen Lucia's film, My Father the Genius? The first time I saw it, I told her, "You used everything but the kitchen sink." Lucia says I said it sarcastically, and maybe I did. In my films I was always trying for a kind of purism; I was trying to get by with as little as possible, but after One Step Away text did become part of my vocabulary, though I've always used text minimally.

One Step Away

One Step Away

Diaries is a very beautiful film, wonderful to look at. And the shots near the end of your family in Vermont winter are stunning. You seem to always have had great confidence in your shooting.

Thank you. But when you say I have confidence in my shooting, it's really more that I have confidence in the world. I trust that if I'm prepared and have good equipment, the world will provide me with something interesting to record and something good to look at.

Between 1981 and 2005, so far as I know, you didn't make a film. Why did you disappear from filmmaking for so long?

Well, part of the story is in Diaries. Basically, this guy Dennis Sweeney, who I knew during my Black Natchez days, had begun to threaten my life, Jane's life, and my son's life. Dennis had become delusional, paranoid, and dangerous. To do the kind of film I was doing, you had to make personal appearances, and that put my family at risk. Once Dennis began to threaten us, we moved to Vermont in order to hide from him. We de-listed our telephone number and told everybody we knew not to tell anyone where we were. A psychologist who had seen Dennis suggested that I use a different route to work every day (I was still teaching at MIT, but commuting from Vermont), and that I avoid being alone. Basically I created the life of a paranoid—for six years.

Dennis was not only stalking us, but other people, including the civil rights and antiwar lawyer Allard Lowenstein, who Dennis shot and killed in his Manhattan office in 1980. Afterward, Dennis was put away in a mental institution. [Sweeney served eight years in the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center, New York State's maximum-security mental hospital, and later was moved to a lower-security facility.]

Though Dennis was the main reason why I stopped making films, there were other reasons. Diaries took a lot out of me, and it accomplished everything I wanted to do in film at that time, especially in seeing how far you could go with observational cinema when you had good access to the people you filmed over a long period—and what the limitations were.

But since these people were my family and friends, Diaries revealed a great deal about all of us. Believe it or not I'm a very private person. In order to make the film, I had told myself a little fib: that after 10 years I wouldn't care what was revealed in the footage. I expected to be pilloried for having done the film, but in fact, the press reaction was incredibly favorable. I was totally surprised, and pleased on one hand, but it was also very difficult for me, and still is, to be so visible.

I did feel privileged to make Diaries. I had a teaching job and didn't have to worry about income; I got a series of grants; I didn't have to release the film for 10 years. At the time, I was committed to the idea that part of the payback was that I had to be absolutely honest in the film. That was what I owed society for allowing me the rare privilege of 10 years of not having to produce anything.

Actually, your pointing out earlier that the film is beautiful—that's really what I cared most about. Diaries was meant to be beautiful, in a tactile sense, and that's why I never wanted to show it on television. It was always meant for large-screen projection.

Dominique Bluher: I have a twofold question. How did this idea of diary film develop? To my knowledge Diaries is one of the very first personal documentaries, and it has given birth to so many others, not just in Cambridge, but all over the world. Second, is there any connection between this documentary approach and the experimental film approach to the personal that developed a little bit earlier?

Well, at the time that I made Diaries, I would say that there was zero connection. Looking back, there was this notion of the camera stylo and the idea of the filmmaker as a kind of creator; that certainly was shared. But to me the possibility of capturing life had to do with sound, and all these early experimental filmmakers, what used to be called the New York Underground, made silent films.

I remember getting into this big argument with Stan Brakhage at a conference on autobiographical film that Gerry O'Grady organized in Buffalo. It was actually a pretty interesting event. Robert Frank was there and a group of New York experimental filmmakers. I felt totally out of place. Brakhage had said, "Everything you see on the screen is exactly what happened"; I think he was talking about Scenes From Under Childhood. I argued that understanding the world has to do with other senses, and in particular sound. Most of the things that people say are stupid. During the editing of Diaries, I would think, "God, did I really say that? Did she really say that?" But stupid or not, what we say is an essential part of who we are, and to pretend that you're capturing reality in a silent film is a fantasy.

As to how personal documentary was born—a lot of it had to do with technology. Éclair had come out with a new camera which was relatively small—it weighed 10 pounds rather than 18 pounds—and just as important was this little tape recorder (the Nagra SN) that you could fit into a pocket or a purse. I had Stuart Cody design a wireless connection so I could turn the tape recorder on and off from the camera. Without this equipment, I couldn't have done Diaries. When the possibility of shooting intimately and making a film that looked and sounded good arrived, so did the option of making Diaries.


Interview With Jane Pincus

At the beginning of Diaries, it's clear that you're uneasy about being filmed...

I hated it.

Did you ever not hate it?

Yeah, toward the middle I began to think I was a really interesting woman and why didn't Ed film me more [laughter]! I got used to it, and as you may remember, at a certain point in the film I turn the camera on Ed, which was great fun.

Ed looks as embarrassed in that shot as you look early on.

At the beginning I was very self-conscious, and being filmed made me more self-conscious, and I hated feeling so insecure. Early in the film, Ann Popkin talks directly into the camera. I saw her as being much braver than me, at least in relationship to being filmed: she did what I couldn't.

Had you agreed to let Ed film you?

That was the thing. I felt he had made the decision to film five years of our lives without consulting with me. He may have felt we did discuss it, I don't know, but I felt that we hadn't, and I didn't feel prepared for it. He continued to make decisions like that. For example, he informed me out of the blue that he was going to go to Minneapolis for four months to film Life and Other Anxieties [shot in 1976-77, completed in 1977].

Not much has changed in that regard: it was the same when he made the recent trip down south with Lucia Small to shoot The Axe in the Attic [filmed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, completed in 2007]. I don't feel that we discussed any of these film projects beforehand. And, or course, earlier on, he had gone to Mississippi to film Black Natchez [shot in 1965, completed in 1967] when I was pregnant with Sammy. I felt abandoned, which had a lot to do with my own psychology.

Whose idea was the open marriage?

I don't remember whose idea it was. I think what happened is that each of us became attracted to other people, and then at a certain point in the midst of the ferment that developed after 1965, we made what we thought was a conscious decision to open our marriage. Right now, I'm not sure how conscious it was, and I'm not sure how smart it was—but I remember it as a mutual decision.

It was a complicated life. I was a young mother, bringing up our kids. I would be in love with other men and still be functioning as Ed's wife and as Sami and Ben's mother; and Ed would be involved with other women—I didn't know about some of his dalliances until I saw the finished film! I struggled through jealousy and at times wished I weren't tied down with kids and a marriage. If I could do it all over, I would do things differently.

Diaries (1971-1976)

Diaries (1971-1976)

What would you do differently?

In those years, in my thirties, I was going through the adolescence that I'd never had. If I could do it over, I would hope to be more mature before my thirties so I could pay more dedicated attention to my children from the beginning.

When people watch Diaries, they often assume that Ed was filming all the time.

He always says he shot 27 hours of material.

That's not a lot, over five years.

It seems like practically zero now. But at the beginning it did feel like a lot. And there were struggles about when he should be filming and when he should be involved with the family. When Ben got his finger smashed in the door, I think at first Ed was going to get his camera, but then decided not to. He had to make decisions like that all the time, which I'm sure made him uncomfortable. After awhile, I was happy to see him film. I even remember asking him if he would film certain things, but Ed had his own agenda—and he was shy too, and hesitant to ask people if he could film them.

There's a startling sequence, shot during the summer of 1972, where you and Ann and another woman are lying in the kiddie pool nude...

[Laughter] Ann Popkin was lovers with Trudy Barnett, the third woman. That was an amazing summer; it felt so free and easy going. We would run water from the washing machine through a hose into the kid's swimming pool, and lie in the sun; it was all very happy.

In the film you seem to have a big struggle with your father. He doesn't take you seriously as an artist.

Oh yeah. That footage when we're in the country and I make him sit and listen to me was one of the most startling experiences of my life with him; when I looked at the footage of that visit on the Steenbeck—parts were cut out for Diaries—I could see that he actually listened to me, for the first time. Up until then, when he would visit, he'd say, "How are you?" and then just talk about himself. My stepmother would say, "Paul, you asked them about themselves, now be quiet and listen to their answers!" That was the first time I ever made him look at the kinds of things he was saying, and I'm glad Ed got that on film.

By the end of Diaries, Ed's other relationships have moved to the background and you and the kids, and your domestic life in Vermont, have emerged as the foreground of Ed's attention; the film becomes a kind of love letter to you.

People say that to me, but I don't feel that. Actually, when I watch the film (and I don't look at it often, except for the "Freeze Tag" section with the kids), I get so upset with myself for rambling on and on.

I remember that one time when Ed was asking me questions and filming me at the kitchen table, I was thinking, "Everything I'm saying here is not exactly true." I can't remember now what I was thinking about—it might have been about Bob, this man I love, who I wish had appeared in the film somehow—but I remember thinking, "I'm not being completely honest. I can't be completely honest with Ed, because he's my husband and because I have such a passionate attachment to this other person."

My marriage was a possible love, but for a long time I also needed some kind of impossible love. Maybe our marriage has survived because each of us had passionate attachments to other people at different times. We've survived for 51 years! And I'm not sorry. I'm glad I got to know other men; I was so naïve growing up in the '50s. I didn't know how to love. I didn't know how to be married well, or how to be a mother.

Sami is fascinating to watch because as the film evolves, she becomes a performer; it's clear that she doesn't like being on film when she's not performing.

She made that very clear, almost from the start. I don't know if something had happened in Sami's short life that had spooked her, but she was very cautious. Ben went right along with everything.

Do they know the film?  How do they feel about it?

When she last looked at it, Sami found it interesting; finally she could take it in and not feel threatened by it. Ben's fine with it, but Ben's wife finds it threatening. She hasn't seen it straight through.

Was the open marriage experiment something that ended during the period when the film was made?

It's complicated, because up until 1990, there were a few men in my life, men I'd loved from the 1980s on. In the mid-1980s Ed asked me not to see one of these men, and I didn't for awhile. Since 1987 there's not been anyone else for me: I put myself in the middle of my marriage, and it's been only Ed. Sometime after that, Ed had an affair with one of our best friends in town, which felt to me like a double betrayal, but that's in the past now too.

I think one of the things that's kept our lives together in spite of all of these outside affairs and allegiances is some wonderful, incredible bond that Ed and I share. The other thing is that throughout our marriage, I would have considered our separating as a failure, my own failure. We did sort of separate, as you see at the beginning of Diaries, and I remember going to Vermont when he had moved out for a few weeks, to look for a place to live; but it didn't feel real in a way. As agonizing as it was, it felt like play.

I do wish that more of my life and the women's movement, which was very important to my art, could have been included in Diaries. But, of course, Diaries isn't my film; it's Ed's.

Some people have been hostile to Diaries and that always surprises me. Two of my oldest friends—I've known them almost 60 years—saw Diaries not long ago, and during the time when Ed was down South doing The Axe in the Attic, my friend Ruthie wrote to tell me how she hated Diaries, hated it, and finished with, "And if you think that's something, you should see what Peter thinks!" I was so shocked. Ed no longer speaks to them. It's a pity they couldn't see the beauty in the film. 


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Ed Pincus
Diaries (1971-1976)
Photo Gallery: Personal Effects


June 23, 2012 Ed Pincus's Diaries (1971-76)


Scott MacDonald teaches at Hamilton College in New York State. He has written for Film Quarterly, October, Afterimage, Millennium, Film Culture, Artforum, and other journals, and is the author of the ongoing A Critical Cinema series of interviews with independent filmmakers.

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