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Playback: Ed Pincus' 'Diaries'


The unassuming title of this documentary belies what is one of the most remarkable nonfiction films ever made. From 1971 through 1976, Ed Pincus recorded on 16mm film episodes of his life with his wife Jane, their two young children and the several women with whom Ed had love affairs. It's also a portrait of a particular era—the early 1970s—a time in which a willingness to experiment in life, love and political expression was still present, but on the wane.

That title—Diaries—is as unadorned, direct and honest, as is the film itself. What I experienced when I first saw Diaries was not a sense of voyeurism, but of privileged intimacy.

Ed films Jane lying on their bed and looking very unhappy. It's a weird shot, a kind of horizontal monologue, in which her face fills the screen, but sideways. She confesses to her husband: "I get angry and I build up this layer of self-consciousness and it hurts me sometimes... I feel my privacy has been invaded... I feel like I'm sacrificing myself for your film." This is a painful indictment. We feel alienated from the filmmaker, who seems merciless in his determination to keep filming. Ed could easily have edited this scene out, but in the long run, we become bonded to Ed and his vision, partially because of his willingness to show this dark side.

This is not to say the film is dark. The unending stream of activities with friends and family is the evanescent backdrop for Ed and Jane's willingness to experiment with redefining what it means to be married, create a family and expose the whole messy enterprise to a camera.

I first saw Diaries when I was a graduate student in MIT's documentary program in the late 1970s; Ed Pincus was an instructor there. Not yet married myself, I felt the film was a daring attempt to fuse art and real life—an experiment which simultaneously questioned conventions of both filmmaking and marriage. It had a great influence on my work, and on the work of dozens of other young filmmakers.

I saw Diaries again 15 years later. This time I had first-hand experience in the complexities, difficulties and pleasures of marriage and family life. I sat there transfixed, watching a different film, one that was much more complicated than the film I had perceived when I was single.

Ed has described his work as an attempt to reconcile the trivial with the deep and probe the fragility and heroism of everyday life. Diaries was his last film. With it, he had perhaps decided that he had said everything he needed to say as a filmmaker. But Diaries continues to inspire a number of nonfiction filmmakers, including myself, to strive for those same reconciliations and revelations.

Ross McElwee's documentary features include Sherman's March, Time Indefinite and Six O'Clock News. Sherman's March was recently selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film of historical significance. He is currently a filmmaker in residence in the Visual Studies Department at Harvard University.