the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pincus at the Green Mountain Film Festival (2013)

The Lesson of the Master

Ed Pincus,  the ground-breaking documentary filmmaker, sat in front of the screen at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier Vermont. He wore a blue surgical mask to protect him from germs as he was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. The news hasn’t dampened his candor. “I used to think films were stupid” was his answer to a question about why he switched from studying Philosophy of Science  and dabbling in still photography.  His shift occurred while viewing “Showman” a ‘direct cinema’ film by the pioneering Maysles’ brothers. Once again Ed’s honesty: “I saw a couple of minutes of it... it wasn’t very good... but it showed me the possibilities”. Ed was referring to the technological changes which shaped the dynamism of sync sound film.  It is difficult in an age of effortless smart phone generated sound images to understand the complete absence of a fast-moving, personal cinema. One key breakthrough came from an MIT colleague.  Prior to Richard Leacock the film camera and tape-recorder needed to be linked by a cable in order to ensure the motors were running ‘in sync’. By having each device SEPARATELY regulated by a quartz crystal he broke the awkward Siamese twin relationship between the cameraman and the recordist.  The flood gates were opened in the late 50s and early 60s and a slew of bright young men picked up their equipment and exposed unknown corners of the globe, in addition to your own private world.  The style was dubbed ‘direct cinema’ in the United States and ‘cinema verite’ (literally ‘truth film’) in Europe. Most of the giants in the new rarefied field had graduate degrees in various subjects: Gardener and Roche were anthropologists, Leacock had a degree in physics, Wiseman is a Yale Law graduate,  Albert Maysles  taught psychology.  Ed, as a student of philosophy, was interested in his OWN truth; with a bias towards hard science and a disdain for soft sentimentality.  This POV has a cost. No built in audiences viewing objective truth or sanctioned views of the exotic. The work is ‘merely’ personal.  The Wikipedia laundry list of ‘filmmakers associated with the Cinema Verite style” fails to mention Pincus. ( )  This would probably provoke a wry smile from Ed.  He knows he is his own man. He has shaped most of contemporary cinema but outside the low earth orbit of documentary film, he is anonymous.

Ed’s epiphany about film’s possibilities coincided with the apex of the civil rights struggle. Ed decided to see for himself. He went to the heart of the Jim Crow South to create both “Black Natchez” and “Panola”. Taking film cameras to Natchez Missippi in 1965 was not for the faint of heart. One year before and 3 hours away by car, two other young New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, came to fatally understand the entrenched ways of segregated Mississippi. Questioning white authority in the Deep South was a death sentence as illustrated by these martyrs.   The Green Mountain film festival audience asked about the risk and Ed characteristically gave a throw-away line: “the black community protected us”.  One could have spent many hours answering: “from what?”. Ed barely gave it a mention. He was focused on larger questions. If the American Civil Rights battle can be fairly framed as a struggle against white oppressor vs. the disempowered black community, Ed took this paradigm and stood it on its head. “Black Natchez” is an internecine struggle between established black businessmen and younger African American citizens who were weighing violent action.  Whereas most storytellers focused on the immediate struggle of black vs. white, Ed turned his gaze on what was going on WITHIN the black community. Pincus chooses to ponder: “What makes us play our roles?”  It’s interesting in that it almost circumvents questions of “authenticity”. His films fail to garner the same tiresome debates about truth that plague many of his colleagues (including Gardener, Wiseman, Rouch, Maysles...) It’s almost a given that this is Ed’s take on things; which creates a more ‘real’ environment.  This stems once again from Pincus’ initial ambivalence about the film medium and his interest in both philosophy and science. Ed’s ‘unsettling truth’ roars to life in his companion film “Panola”.  This work was shot at the same time as “Black Natchez” but Ed spoke of it being impossible in integrate into the that story.

The eponymous film “Panola” features the relative that noone can publicly admit is a relation. This portrait transcends the intricacies of the civil rights battle of that moment. It reminded me of an early sequence in the Ralph Ellison novel “The Invisible Man” where a callow eager black student gives a tour of a black neighborhood to an important white trustee of the black college. It earns the promising student an expulsion a life-lesson in truth-telling. We first see Panola in dark glasses giving an impassioned sermon at a funeral for a local soldier killed in Vietnam. The man has a commanding presence, a powerful build and a heartfelt impassioned voice born of the school of hard knocks.  There is a blast at a collective rage as the Vietnamese are blameless for his death.  One expects the heartfelt anti-war rhetoric but Panola delivers something more troubling: we’re ALL responsible. His sunglasses are removed there is a sense that all is not exactly as it should be. The camera pans down to what one thinks is the grave but turns out to be a young child rolling around in a sleeping bag.  Is this an actual funeral? Is Panola really a preacher? Is he sober?  There is a great deal of dignity in his pronouncements; yet he has a showmanship born of a huckster.   The conundrum builds as we see his home.  He lives amongst a never-ending stream of children and ramshackle shacks. He speaks to his vocations: a tree surgeon, a preacher and half a dozen other things.  He seems to have the build of someone who works outside. He scales a tree with the ease of someone half his age (he’s in his mid-30s). The talk about politics revs into a disjointed narrative that manages to merge Black Nationalism and Jim Crow’s cardinal precept: respect for whitey.  It doesn’t make sense but that fails to dampen Panola’s verve.   There is a visit to a barbershop.. something about wanting to appear as Malcolm X Jr. (sports a crudely written T-shirt identifying himself as such)... he is greeted as a familiar fixture... patiently loved by the neighborhood ... but in small quantities.... it helps if he’s sober... or maybe it doesn’t. This proud preacher, whom we met ten minutes previous, is now being chastised by one of his toddlers because he fails to earn money. It sounds odd that this speech would come from someone who appeared no more than six years old, but one grows up fast in black Natchez. Panola's defense is incomprehensible due to his inebriation. Another child reveals that alcohol leads the preacher/tree surgeon to beat his wife... who is or isn’t  around and is or isn’t pregnant.  The final encounter shows that Ed has won his complete trust and is granted a tour of his living quarters.  Panola, who previously extolled the virtues of white benevolence, becomes more agitated and angry as he points to the hovel where everyone piles into bed next to an inoperable refrigerator and broken furniture. The interior harkens back to photographs taken two decades previous by Walker Evans in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”.  In the whirlwind of Panola’s tirade one catches a momentary glimpse of Ed or his sound man in a mirror. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and ask ‘who IS this guy?’.... to which the confident  response would be: ‘I was gonna ask you the same question’.  Here is the bedrock of the Pincus sensibility - his films pose questions instead of giving answers. It is impossible to place Panola in the context of being merely a symbol of white oppression or black poverty. Lesser filmmakers would feel the need to contextualize him or weight the merits or political costs of his various screeds.  There was a former student of Ed’s who was present at the screening who mentioned that many of his classmates would do spontaneous imitations of Panola.  This is certainly a tribute to the charisma of the central character, but the former professor should also be noted.  Ed stopped teaching at MIT decades ago; and yet a group of former students made the trek to view the film and share stories.

In the discussion Ed stood by Leacock’s axiom “film what you love”.  How does this square with Panola? The key is understanding that Leacock himself was from the English upper class; not known for warm and fuzzy emotional outpouring. ‘Love’ should be distinct from ‘affection’. Ed has a tremendous amount of passion for people in equal measure to his disdain for prudishness and politeness that masks an underlying reality.  The evening of the screening there were numerous clips of his other works which show an oeuvre that is damningly frank.   The unsettling intra-family squabbles of “Black Natchez” goes against the portrait of a unified black movement in the Jim Crow South. In addition the morally ambiguous fabulist, Panola, is someone that everyone would wish didn’t exist. Ed places him front and center. The Q and A continued the sense of a revolutionary perspective: there has been a re-imagining of the civil rights struggle to highlight the non-violence. His view, born of actual experience on the front lines, was that MLK needed Malcolm; or at least the threat of militant resistance in order to succeed.  After Mississippi came a film in San Francisco in 1967. Ed has a penchant for going where the action is and seeing for himself. Ed, once again, deconstructs the accepted notions of the period. Revolution might have been in the air but on screen we see the familiar recapitulation of the established order. “One Step Away” has a clip of a man and woman holding hands on a bed while a baby lies nearby.  There is no overt sexual activity but given their physicality they appear to be lovers or in some way carnally intimate. Another woman comes in and sits on the bed with them. At this point the background radio starts playing James Brown’s “This is a Man’s World”. The jilted spouse assumes a hunched tragic slouch.... so much for our notions of ‘the summer of love’. In a sense Pincus’ career is built on HIS truth.   Ed is his own man with his own vision and it was only natural that his magnum opus would be a film about... himself.

“Diaries” premise is simple: film your life. The inspiration was a realization that he, unlike most people, had the means and opportunity to create a film about ‘an average guy’.  Average might be a relative term as not everyone was a professor who helped shape MIT’s film program. Ed, despite his erudite manner and encyclopedic knowledge on a variety of subjects, sees himself as merely ‘a guy from Brooklyn’. It appears strange in our present era of  ubiquitous self documenting to have a recognized filmmaker think it important to make an epic ‘home movie’.  The strangeness only highlights “Diaries” visionary status. Ed was absolutely correct... if not him... who? To give you an understanding of cost: to shoot, process and edit 12 minutes of sync sound color film in 1970 would equal the price of a contemporary professional grade video camera.  Who else, but Ed, would be in a position to shoot 35 hours of film over five years with no obvious purpose or conventional narrative. It is akin to the skit in Seinfeld when Jerry pitches a show to the suits at the network about “nothing”.  Fortunately for us the people granting the grants had enough faith in Ed.  There is absolutely no doubt that NOONE had attempted anything close to this project at the time of its inception.  Kudos the those brave souls giving ‘the green light’.

Given Ed’s track record of tearing down myths, the truths of “Diaries” are both disquieting and inspiring. This ain’t your grandfather’s home movie - although, in actual fact, IT IS. The first of the two clips shown at the festival center around Ed’s two children and their friends playing freeze tag. I had seen the entire film almost three decades ago and this moment was still clearly in my mind. The older sister convinces the younger brother that in order for everyone to play the game he must take a turn at being “it”.  The young boy is inconsolable. The sister comforts him and prevails. Ed bravely includes a small snippet in which the daughter says “it’s easier with the camera off”.  It is not surprising that during the Q and A the response to the question of “what do your children think of the film?” was answered by: “my son is proud of it.... my daughter is ambivalent”.  One can see the issues of “the public eye vs. right to privacy”  in the contemporary debate about Google Glasses or the limits of ‘sharing’ on the internet.  In the next sequence Pincus presses even further.  It is a strident undoing of conventional mores regarding family and the boundaries of documentary intimacy. In this section Ed’s wife, Jane, has a frank conversation about the state of their marriage. If this talk was being overheard at a neighboring table at a restaurant our lesser selves would strain to hear every salacious detail.  It has elements of the grist-mill of ‘reality TV’ which pushes highly charged emotional snippets to garner ratings. The public radio equivalent would be ‘StoryCorps’. The difference is that this moment in ‘Dairies’ is merely a note in a much larger song. Ed and Jane survived the turbulence but is vital to understand that Ed’s inclusion of this painful personal moment is merely ONE color in a larger palette.  Life, as revealed by Pincus, is far more than the sum of it’s most excruciating moments - although it is of paramount importance never to pretend we exist without heartbreaking strife. Ironically the legion of artists of have followed in his path have only half learned the lesson. There is nothing wrong with letting your most harrowing private moments open for public view, as long as one includes the larger truth.

After “Diaries” Ed spent over two decades away from film.  When asked about his hiatus his response centered around a serious threat directed at his family by one of the circle of acquaintances from the film.  This individual was suffering from severe mental illness which created paranoid delusions including one in which Ed’s infant son was seen as a mortal threat to the world at large.  The entire family took refuge in Vermont and he became a noted flower farmer.  He also pursued the martial art of Aikido.  Although Ed’s explanation makes perfect sense... it seems, given the man and the body of work, to be incomplete.  Ed’s desire to be ‘invisible’ also stems from the cost of being unsparingly honest in his art. Oscar Wilde once said: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.”  As a corollary it should be said that, for a master of his craft, baring one’s artistic soul is equally dangerous. His reticence about diving into another film stems from taking a long breath after bearing his soul.  Some artists (e.g. Ralph Ellison) never recover from the tremendous drain of glimpsing God. It might be the visually equivalent of spending a few hours staring directly at the sun. Fortunately for us, Ed has returned... this time with a collaborator; Lucia Small.

The last segment shown at the festival was a clip from “Axe in the Attic”; a personal look at the diaspora from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.  Lucia, who was born near the time ‘Panola‘ was made, shares Ed’s unsparing honesty.  She has also dared to turn the camera on her family. “Genius” is a portrait of her father. This man, although a white educated architect without noticeable substance abuse issues, share’s Panola’s enigmatic loathsomeness and like-ability. Lucia is not in the business of easy answers either - once again: it’s more about questions. Most people with a father who is a vain, cruel, charismatic egomaniac might place them safely in an attic and pretend.... but then again most people might not rise to the challenge of returning to the South with Ed Pincus and a camera. Their collaboration reveals that Ed’s post “Diaries” vision is intact. Once again he travels to the national scene of the crime and makes his own conclusions.  The clip that is shown shows Ed head to head with one of Katrina’s victims.  Once again the narrative of easy answers is undercut by the fact that this gentleman fails to play the traditional role of the righteous oppressed .  He is an angry drunk and unable to cope with his helplessness. He decides to lash out. Ed, the Vermont outsider with a camera, is the perfect target.  At this point the recording device is handed to Lucia who films Ed’s graceful exit. Although the opponent was a good two decades younger, Ed showed no fear. One should note that one of the central tenets of Aikido is to avoid physically injuring your attacker. This clip illustrates the film is as much about Ed and Lucia as the victims of the disaster. This might seem inappropriate but, once again, Ed (and Lucia) see themselves as stand-ins for average people wanting to understand this catastrophe.  One might think that their struggles or reactions would fail to equal the pathos of the situation... but Ed believes the opposite.  All the ‘advocacy’ films and works that speak to objectivity are dishonest in that they mask who is presenting ‘the truth’. Ed and Lucia, and their opinions and struggles are as much a part of the movie as all the heartbreaking stories of deprivation and bureaucratic bumbling. Ed and Lucia are educated, white people with diverse views of the tragedy. They do not hide behind the camera. The phrase “Axe in the Attic” comes from a story told by a resident who keeps the tool upstairs so he can chop through the roof if the water rises quickly.  This is a metaphor for Ed’s weltanschauung: no matter how comfortable the house appears - make sure there is an axe in the attic to smash through the roof and save yourself and everyone else.

In closing Ed and Lucia spoke about their next project, ominously titled: ‘Elephant in the Room’.  It focuses on Ed’s illness and Lucia’s loss of two close friends within a six week period.  One might think this is a film about facing death. Knowing their shared vision it will be about uncomfortable unspoken truths. In the end our lives are a delicate balance of restrained politeness matched against the unpredictable rawness of the world at large. We become adept at avoiding inconvenient truths. Even amongst artists, the designated maverick class, many strive for acceptance; even if  their work seems strident.  Ed’s films show someone who has chosen to follow his truth rather than the comfort of universal praise. As he sat in the theater politely answering questions behind the blue surgical mask it was hard to square Ed’s demeanor as an avuncular old man with the burning radicalness of his legacy. This gravelly- voiced , long retired, MIT prof led the charge into today’s no-emotional boundaries limitless personal media frenzy.  It is not a question of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ - he simply had the vision of what was coming combined with  the courage to pursue his artistic vision.

There was an awkward but revealing moment during the presentation when someone asked a question about who chose the clips that were shown. Ed said Lucia had made the decisions. The significance lies in the fact that Ed’s wife of nearly five decades stood in the audience. The segment from ‘Diaries” exposed a particularly raw segment of their relationship centered around questions of commitment. Given Ed’s current health and Jane’s steadfast support  it must have been emotionally harrowing to re-live that particular moment. It brought to mind the line in the Joni Mitchell song ‘Case of You’: ‘stay with him if you can; but be prepared to bleed’.   At the close of the evening Lucia said “Ed, you chose the clips”.  I believe her. I also feel good that Ed didn’t want to own having made the choice.  Artistically it was the right segment to show, despite it’s uncomfortable content. It was also ‘right’ for him to deny selecting the clip in deference to his family. “Elephant in the Room” will do doubt have equally beautiful/painful moments. 

Ralph Ellison’s anti-hero ends up alone in a room illuminated by rows and rows of illegally charged lights - basking in his isolation. Ellison himself endured decades of lonely questions about his stillborn second novel. Ed emerged from his battle with art with a strong body of work and a wonderful loving family. I’m sure they (and others who follow Ed’s films) anticipate the debut of ‘Elephant in the Room’.   It won’t be easy to watch.. be prepared to bleed. Ed, however, knows that this pain is simply a part of a big picture. As Ellison says in “Invisible Man”: “I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied”.  People might not happy and will no doubt bleed; but back to Ellison: “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” Once again its not about acceptance or acclaim; but a universal understanding of what is important. It is harder with the camera on.... but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t film... just show it all.


Anonymous said...

"...central 'tenets' of Aikido"?

Alan Smithee said...

Thank you for your correction.

Alan Smithee said...

On Pincus' "shaping of contemporary cinema"

The question of Ed's influence- perhaps the word 'cinema' is too limiting - I really meant popular entertainment. Feature films are losing their primacy - Ed's work touches on a burning question which haunts everyone who has a cell phone or uses the internet - 'what is appropriate?' - certainly Ed's mark can be see in the birth of the 'reality TV' movement - but I don't think his shadow is limited to this unfortunate ugly step-child - His 'sharing' of so many ambiguous qualities in his characters in all of his work (which included himself and his immediately family) broke down the very rigid divides in popular entertainment between hero, anti-hero, villain, victim..... Audiences are now comfortable with presenting protagonists who are anchored by their not being easily marked as good or bad and are consumed with the endless quiet desperation of personal struggle. Prior to Ed this type of battle was seen as self-indulgent or not fit for polite entertainment. One might say that popular audiences now celebrate the endless dysfunctional relationships in many film and TV shows due to Ed's trailblazing vision. Maybe the producers of Breaking Bad owe Ed a nod of gratitude in the way that all the contemporary heavy metal acts owe something to the 1950s performer Link Wray. It's not that people have to know Ed's name or work - but for those who care it should be noted that Ed picked up his camera and broke taboos that became standard industry practice.