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In the Midst of a Retrospective, A Lesson from Filmmaker Ed Pincus

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Diaries (1971-1976) by Ed Pincus

An image from the 1980 documentary Diaries (1971-1976). Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City is honoring filmmaker Ed Pincus with a retrospective, Nov. 2-4, 2012.

There’s a small handful of documentary legends who usually get credited for pioneering the nonfiction form when it really took off in the 1960s. Names like the Maysles brothers, DA Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Frederic Wiseman immediately come to mind. This weekend, Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City reminds us that Ed Pincus should be on that list.

Pincus is being honored with a retrospective of his work, continuing through Sunday.

I saw One Step Away (1968) on Friday night, which Pincus called his “hippy film,” about a commune outside of San Francisco in 1967. Pincus, now in his 70s, said of the film, “We were very tempted to do a film about The Grateful Dead or Country Joe and the Fish but that was about celebrity and that was not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make films about regular people.”

Pincus returned to filmmaking recently — The Axe in the Attic (2005) was a Hurricane Katrina road-trip documentary and Elephant in the Room seeks to document his treatment for MDS. Despite his not being well, Pincus entertained the audience with a short talk. He referenced a line from Samuel Beckett in explaining his own draw to the common man: “The sun rose on the nothing new,” he paraphrased.

Pincus’s magnum opus, Diaries (1971-1976) (1980), a five-year record of his life, marriage and everything that was going down in the 70s, is showing tonight (November 3, 2012) and tomorrow afternoon (November 4, 2012). The film broke new ground in personal filmmaking — Ross McElwee, Alan Berliner and a very long list of directors owe him a lot for cutting the path they tread on.

One Step Away broke ground in its very real depiction of the mushy mind of a hippy, as well as in its use of color for a direct cinema film. Not that Pincus was entirely happy about his work, having called its “anecdotal editorial style … very curious.”

Pincus told me that he was disappointed with what he had captured in the making of the film, and so he resorted to a heavy editorial hand.

“Our filmmaking philosophy was that we wanted to do something about the summer of love in 1967 in San Francisco, and we’d be open to whatever happened, and we would form a narrative,” he said. “In this case, the story wasn’t strong enough. So when we edited it, we chose to edit for humor. For us, it was a total reversal of what we thought we were doing.”

Pincus called today’s outright dismissal of fly-on-the-wall direct cinema “lazy,” suggesting that filmmakers need to be flexible, just as he was making One Step Away. Let the action lead the way, he said, if it’s compelling, or infuse the film with more direction if it is not.

It’s a good lesson for doc filmmakers. But his films speak louder than words.

The last showing of Diaries is on Sunday at 2:15 PM. For a complete list of films and show times, visit filmlinc.com.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki