Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Career and Influence of Ed Pincus: Shifts in Documentary Epistemology

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Career and Influence of Ed Pincus: Shifts in Documentary Epistemology

Article excerpt

This essay addresses the career of Ed Pincus, a documentary filmmaker who began making films in the mid-1960s, headed the MIT Film/Video Section in the 1970s, and has authored two books on film production. Specifically, this essay examines the changes that occurred in the late 1960s in Pincus's documentary theory and practice. These changes were precipitated by personal crisis but should also be seen in the context of historical events. His films helped foster a new subgenre in documentary-namely, the autobiographical documentary-which has developed into one of the most significant American contributions to the world documentary movement.

As a filmmaker and theorist, Pincus is frequently ignored and his significance as a major figure in the American autobiographical documentary movement overlooked. The purpose of this essay is to provide a more thorough examination of Pincus's influence on contemporary documentary by reviewing the critical period in which Pincus moved from an adherence to a philosophy of direct cinema to experimentation in interactive, autobiographical documentary.

Ed Pincus's filmography reads as follows: Black Natchez (with David Neuman) in 1967, One Step Away (with David Neuman) in 1968, Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter (with David Neuman) in 1968, The Way We See It (with David Neuman) in 1969, Harry's Trip (with David Neuman) in 1969, Panola (with David Neuman) in 1971, Life and Other Anxieties (with Steven Ascher) in 1977, and Diaries: 1971-1976 in 1981. The last two completed films represent Pincus's autobiographical turn.1

Diaries is the only film in which Pincus gives himself sole directorial credit. Such a gesture speaks to his willingness to share authorship throughout his work. For Pincus, filmmaking was inherently collaborative. This was especially the case for those who served as his main sound recordists, such as David Neuman and later Steven Ascher. Diaries was the culmination of single-person synchronous-sound shooting, which became central to Pincus's practice of documentary filmmaking. This practice was deeply linked to Pincus's philosophical approach to filming the world as well as his development of a cinematic, autobiographical discourse.

There are few references to Pincus in the major texts on documentary. G. Roy Levin published an interview in 1971 that summarized many of Pincus's earlier ideas on film (331-71). Twenty years later, Bill Nichols refers in a footnote to Pincus's film Panola as an "extraordinary documentary" (278). But while acknowledging several significant forms of contemporary American documentary, including what he calls "the diary film," made, he says, by Jonas Mekas, Alfred Guzzetti. and Ross McElwee, Jack Ellis, in his survey history of documentary filmmaking, fails to acknowledge Pincus as part of this movement (295-96). To date, William Rothman has written most extensively on Pincus. Rothman acknowledges the importance of Diaries and Pincus's influence on his MIT students but only as a preface to discussing other issues in documentary studies ("Eternal Verites" 82; Documentary Film Classics xi-xiv).

The general lack of attention from the critical community is curious considering that Pincus produced documentaries over a 15year period and taught many influential documentarists, including Steven Ascher, Joel DeMott, Robb Moss, and Ross McElwee.2 One reason for this lack of recognition might be that critics and theorists were overwhelmed by the public image of Pincus's MIT colleague Richard Leacock and failed to recognize an equally significant documentarist at the same institution. I choose to think that Pincus's career and films are uneven and at times difficult to categorize, causing much frustration for documentary critics and theorists. I contend that this uneven and complicated trajectory in his work is related to the gradual change in Pincus's philosophical outlook, which was played out in his films and theory. This shift is most clearly seen when Pincus moved from the aesthetics of direct cinema to his interactive, autobiographical projects. …

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