The Pincus Experiment

by Giampaolo Bianconi*

On November 17, 1982 Ed Pincus’ Diaries (1971-1976) opened at the Bleecker Street Cinema in downtown Manhattan. It was greeted by a lukewarm review by Vincent Canby of The New York Times, who, before wondering whether there was “any hope for a middle class that talks such nonsense,” expounded on what he felt to be the film’s foundational flaw. He wrote:

The camera takes over any space it inhabits in much the same way that a stranger does. It destroys all privacy. […] The camera may record everything but it understands nothing. It’s a mechanical extension of the person holding it, whom it transforms into an alien. The camera can go beneath the skin only to the extent that the person being photographed welcomes it or becomes oblivious to its presense [sic].[1]

Here, Canby noticed the film’s status between past modes of vérité documentary, in which the camera was considered an instrument that could be ignored by “real people” or played to by media personalities. Yet his conclusions on the act of bringing a camera intimately into one’s own life were, in fact, primary concerns for Pincus himself. The film became not a record of their daily lives as captured by the omnipresent camera, but instead a trace of the attempt by Ed Pincus and his wife, Jane,[2] to utilize the camera for the purposes of self-investigation and to facilitate the process of opening their marriage. This becomes more recognizable considering the trajectory of Pincus’ previous works and writings, which this paper will attempt to reconstruct.

Settling into a characterization of the 1970s as indicative of a shift away from the eventful political landscape of the 1960s, Canby takes note of how the characters didn’t discuss politics or the Vietnam War very much, preferring to focus on themselves.[3] The film’s most potentially diaristic elements—events culled from the daily lives of Ed and Jane Pincus from 1971 to 1976—is secondary to the discussions which occur between Pincus and participants in the film about the nature of the project and how it affects them. Jane describes the process early on: it’s like being in therapy, very self-centered, always made to look inwards. She feels, to a certain extent, like she should be acting. She concludes, despite her clearly emotionally exhausted state, that she must go through the experience herself—with the hopes of coming out somehow improved.

Ed and Jane Pincus, filming themselves in a mirror at their home before they depart for a funural. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

Ed and Jane Pincus, filming themselves in a mirror at their home before they depart for a funeral. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

In another instance, returning home after an evening with Ann Popkin, his girlfriend for much of the film, Ed and Ann take apart their selves and actions. “I didn’t feel I was acting,” she tells him, “But we’ll now dissect the evening if you like.” They film each other discussing their night, in which Ann seems to have had a little too much to drink. The camera here is anything but an object to be overlooked. It must be contended with, and its presence in daily life is felt uneasily.

Ed and Jane travel to California to visit David Neuman, Ed’s documentary partner from the 60s. Immediately following the scene in which Jane, bedridden, expresses her deepest discomforts over the camera’s intrusions, their trip begins as Ed films her in the shower of their motel room. Over dinner with David, Jane further describes the project and its impact. “It’s a lot of agony for the wife,” she says, “But it’s lessening because she’s getting more open minded.”[4] Finally, she describes herself as finally finding her own identity. Ed hands the camera over to David, who films him. How will this camera-driven self examination open her, help her solidify an identity that is her own? Why did these desires cluster around 16mm film in 1971?

It is important to note that these numerous conversations never have a strategic function. Their purpose is not to help Ed design a better process, or to optimize the comforts of his participants before the camera. The nature of their self-improvement is neither the labor of maintaining a smoothly functional open marriage, nor the successful completion of the documentary project. Ed’s anxieties over Ann’s possible overacting, or Jane’s unease faced by Ed’s camera, underscore a more general apprehension over the very possibility of presence between these characters at all. The problem is no longer that the camera will capture too much of you, or judge you too harshly. Cause for concern is instead how the camera changes your potential interaction with others. “You’re not all here anyway,” “I don’t know whether to look at you or the camera,” people tell Ed. You’re not really present all the time. “How could one want more than love and presence?” Jane Pincus says. Ed’s anxieties revolve around who is really present, with him. He asks his son Ben: “Do you like being here, with me?” If presence drives their anxieties, Diaries might have been a way of articulating their uneasiness within institutional power structure. What drives them: their self or their determined-subjectivities? Diaries would attempt to resolve this through a project that was not a retreat from the political arena, but instead a continuation of radical politics in the theater of the self, taking the form of a  self-examination and purification.

Jane Pincus looks on as Ben tells her he is sick. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

Jane Pincus looks on as Ben tells her he is sick. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

After beginning the project, Pincus would write: “There are many problems involved in bringing a camera into your private life, but I’d rather not write about them at this time since many of them are unresolved and form part of the subject matter of the film itself.”[5]

Before beginning work on Diaries in 1971, Ed Pincus tinkered with some footage he had excluded from his previous collaboration with David Neuman, Black Natchez (1967). The decision to make Natchez came while Pincus was studying philosophy at Harvard. At the time, he explained, he was leading “a kind of very dried up academic life,” while also becoming interested in “politics of all kinds.”[6] In 1965, Pincus and Neuman followed political organizers(mainly Dennis Sweeney) to Natchez, MS, where they filmed for a period of three months, focusing on attempts by Northerners to register voters and raise political consciousness among black communities in the region.[7]

The ethos behind that film relied on what Pincus called an “early SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] political philosophy of ‘let the people decide, don’t manipulate people.’”[8] It was doubtless also influenced by the aesthetic and techniques of cinéma vérité to which he had been exposed at Harvard, which deferred the director’s subjective control to the camera’s objectivity, so long as its presence before the subject was adequately controlled. At the time, this was the style Pincus and Neuman decided they could utilize to make the greatest contribution to the “Movement.” Describing both his aesthetic axiom and political goals of the time, Pincus later expressed:

I had this notion of cinéma-vérité as a kind of flow, and what this cinéma-vérité film-maker wanted to do was capture this flow and editing was an unfortunate necessity, but ideally real time and film time would be the exact same thing—a Warhol kind of idea—and somehow that would demand on the part of the audience this real self-attuning to the minutest detail, that they would really become more active participants in the viewing. I don’t think that anymore.[9]

Black Natchez relied on an objective investment in the camera, presenting un-manipulated events that could politically activate its viewers. Consciousness-raising, then, was the film’s contribution to the radical political movements of the period. In conjunction with direct action, direct cinema would help to incite social and political transformations. Their thinking here seems closer to efforts by Newsreel, the radical documentary group with offices that operated across the country, than the vérité of D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles, or Frederick Wiseman.[10]

Though filmed in the summer of 1965, Pincus and Neuman didn’t finish editing Natchez until 1967. The editing process involved an intensive search for the moments in which they felt their “presence hadn’t affected the action,” as Pincus describes.[11] In one instance, they were faced with footage for which they had no doubt that the camera had affected their subject:, Panolaan alcoholic, accused police informant, and follower of Malcolm X. This was the footage to which Pincus returned in 1970. Panola presented a challenge to the filmmakers at the time due to his uninhibited recognition of the camera, his emphatic return of its gaze. Writing in 1977, Pincus mentions: “I remember meeting one subject in a film I was editing, and I was angry at his autonomy.”[12] This was likely Panola.

With Panola, Pincus found the presence of the camera impossible to nullify. He refused to ignore the apparatus and actively performed for it. It became clear that this footage was unsuitable for the purposes of Black Natchez, which couldn’t allow for an intrusion that actively contradicted the camera’s claims to affect no one but its audience. That objectivity, though, involved fixing a subject in space, time, and type: it didn’t have room for Panola’s always transforming, dynamic performance. The realization that previous vérité practices could only create ossified subjects became key to the development of Diaries, which looked instead to capture people as “becomings.”[13]As noted by Jim Lane, Pincus’ changing conception of the relationship between the camera and the subject before it “hinged on Panola’s racial status as African American, inflected by his performance and the documentarists’ inability to contain such a performance.”[14] Through Panola, Pincus could begin to accept the inherent performativity that didn’t prohibit the camera-subject’s identity, but rather, formed it. He use the previously discarded footage of Panola from Black Natchez to create a new film titled Panola.

In his interview with G. Roy Levin conducted weeks after the completion of Panola, Pincus described the manner in which he felt the film was now able to function. If it could be deployed, the material would no longer be within the vérité paradigm that had produced Natchez. He explained:

Of course he was relating to the camera and he would put on everything from a real performance for us, to his just being very, very drunk and working out his aggression or his sadness in relationship to us and the camera. Panola as performer also matched the kind of face Panola felt he had to put out to the world as a black man, and those two things just worked very nicely…[15]

With regard to documentary form, this presented a realization that the modes of reality affected by cinéma vérité could themselves be changed. It was not merely that performativity and, more important, explicit engagement with the camera could now have radical political potential. Manipulating Panola to ignore the camera would have contradicted political and aesthetic claims to the writing of reality. Pincus would later describe the mode of 60s vérité as “a cinematographic approach to the world.” “What was important,” he continued, “could be achieved through surfaces, the world of public spaces…Private space, radical subjectivity, was inaccessible to the camera and was either nonexistent or unimportant.”[16] With Panola, the camera’s claim on fixing others in space and in time had crumbled.

Politically, Pincus’ outlook at the time of Panola was moving away from the SDS-inflected attitudes that had informed Natchez. Again, to Levin in 1970, Pincus described:

I’ve changed…right now, I have a very cynical attitude toward the possibilities of political revolution. What I want to do is make films that say what I want to say and in some way relate to political institutions. Not only political institutions, but institutions that determine people’s politics and the quality of their lives, be it family, being a male, being female…[17]

It was precisely to the family institution that Pincus would shift his focus in the making of Diaries. But it would not be the family as an external institution that Pincus would investigate, as in the contemporaneous pop-culture media event An American Family, the documentary series that would air on PBS in 1973. Instead, Pincus chose to subject his own family to his camera, including himself.[18] “Some people say there is a pig in all of us and we have to learn what that pig is,” Pincus told Levin, echoing contemporaneous slogans by the Weather Underground.[19]

Film Poster for Diaries (1971-1976).

Film Poster for Diaries (1971-1976).

The increasing politicization of the personal in the late 60s is frequently associated with 70s practices of “dropping out,” in terms of a retreat from the public arena of politics caused by the dissipation of the energies that surrounded  the events of 1968. Here, the influence of the women’s movement and rising feminist consciousness are said to have played a key role. As discussed by Frederic Jameson, the emphasis on private life was a tactical and rhetorical shift that opened a “whole new political space, a space…articulated by the slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ and into which … the women’s movement will triumphantly move at the end of the decade.”[20] An engagement with feminism proved key for Pincus himself, especially as encountered through his wife, Jane Pincus.

By the late 60s, Jane has become involved with the Bread and Roses collective in Cambridge, one of the most active consciousness-raising groups in the area. As she has explained:

…We’d had our children and started to talk together and because there were other groups beginning to meet and to gel, there began to be these huge women’s meetings at MIT. And it was at that time that we decided that we wanted to learn about ourselves and our bodies…We just knew that there were things that weren’t quite right and could be set right.[21]

From there, she became one of the founding members of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which released Women and Their Bodies: A Course as an inexpensive booklet in 1970.[22] By 1973, an expanded version was released by Simon & Shuster as Our Bodies, Ourselves.

The textual production of these organizations, epitomized by Our Bodies, Ourselves and its success on a national scale, indicates that their consciousness-raising was rooted just as much in bodily as political concerns. Engagements with medical institutional practices that precluded women’s’ knowledge of their own bodies incited them to organize and disseminate information they had been denied. Again, from Jane Pincus:

We didn’t interview the doctors…We basically talked amongst ourselves. And we had to see doctors because we were either pregnant or trying not to get pregnant, and so dealing with birth control methods…But we didn’t interview doctors so much as we were living through experiences with doctors, and talking about those experiences, and gaining knowledge about both ourselves and what was happening to us, and then developing a critique of what was happening.[23]

Here, concern with the body and the self marks not a withdrawal from politics as Jane Pincus had practiced it in the 60s—when she was involved with SDS, the NAACP, and worked counseling returning Vietnam veterans—but rather its continuation on the level of the body itself.

I don’t think the importance of these ideas can be overstated in regard to the dual form-of-life experiments the Pincuses began in 1971.[24] While expanding a marriage in 1971 may be less remarkable than the experiment of bringing a camera into one’s private life, the Pincus open marriage still predated the immense popularization of the lifestyle incited by Nena and George O’Neil’s book Open Marriage, which appeared in 1972.[25] Diaries doesn’t show the Pincuses engaged in a swinging good time: instead, the process is portrayed as difficult, painful, and rigorous. The achievement of sexual liberation may have been a secondary to the goal of self-knowledge.

Speaking at Columbia University in 1975, Félix Guattari framed the political effects of the decade: “The question is neither of innocence or guilt but of finding the microfascism one harbors in oneself, particularly when one does not see it.”[26] Acknowledging his ambivalence towards the term microfascism, Guattari expounded on its implications:

There is a microfascism of one’s own body, of one’s own organs, the kind of bulimia that leads to anorexia, a perceptual bulimia that blinds one to the value of things, except for their exchange value, their use value, to the expense of the values of desire.[27]

For Jane Pincus, the presence of something else within her body was all too material, as indicated by her interactions with medicinal institutions. In Diaries, these institutions cannot be avoided; throughout, Jane considers having a tubectomy, and at one point Ed accompanies her to an abortion (all the film shows is Ed picking up some sandwiches with other waiting husbands and boyfriends). Aside from a medical apparatus installing itself within the body, there is also the presence of the marriage institution within Ed and Jane both. In this sense, the combination of an open marriage and the camera’s inclusion into their lives was an attempt to identify and possibly purge the presence of power, the microfascisms, the “pigs” within themselves; just as Women and Their Bodies: A Course had attempted to reclaim knowledge of the self for the improvement of the experience of women in the prevailing medical system.[28]

In the development of Diaries, Ed Pincus’ own intellectual engagements with video and television at the time must also be acknowledged. Television and mediation are woven throughout Diaries: on a short road trip, Ed and David pull into a motel not to rest, but to watch the Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection, and television is frequently consumed by the Pincus children. Scenes showing substantial protests against the Vietnam War at MIT further correspond to the war’s increasing media presence.

Between shooting Natchez and revisiting the Panola footage, Pincus and Neuman had remained active political documentarians. One Step Away (1968), their first film following Natchez, was made for television. It investigated a rural hippie commune in California, but the filmmakers were dispirited to find—in Pincus’ words—“a bizarre replication of bourgeois society.”[29] The experience of working with television producers and networks appears to have been equally dispiriting.[30]

Before beginning shooting for Diaries, Pincus shared some of his thinking on television and contemporaneous guerilla television developments:

TV obviously has a lot to do with molding people’s minds, their whole conception of what they think of themselves, what they think life is about. The relationship between TV and consumerism, all that shit. So that’s a much more insidious system to prop up and participate in.[31]

Participating as propping up—here Pincus’ targets are the countercultural video collectives Raindance and Videofreex. At the time, Videofreex were working to create content for CBS, with Raindance serving as the movement’s “research and development arm.”[32] Writing in 1971 of what he termed “cybernetic guerilla warfare,” Paul Ryan wrote in favor of “the real possibilities of portable videos, maverick data banks, acid metaprogramming, Cable TV, satellites, cybernetic craft industries, and alternate life styles.”[33] It was precisely here—the utopian video current—that Pincus located his opposition to television and video and formed a system to set film against it. For Pincus, there were limitations to the television’s political potential. “In a sense, you can sell Excedrin or you can sell menthol cigarettes by repeating something that people hate. But the question is, suppose you wanted to unsell Excedrin, suppose you wanted to unsell commercialism, consumerism. Maybe that’s not possible because of something intrinsic to the nature of TV.”[34] The medium’s utopian promise as expressed by Ryan was matched by Pincus’ disdain.

Now that the prevalence of digital video has become an altogether unremarkable element of daily life, the radicalism of these early 70s gestures may be more difficult to recover. Writing in 1976 and attempting to define the video medium, Rosalind Krauss described the feedback that characterized the relationship between the video camera and the television screen as “mirror-reflection,” implying “the vanquishing of separateness.”[35] In 1974, Hollis Frampton called the video frame “a degenerate amoeboid shape passing for a rectangle to accommodate the cheap programming of late-night movies.”[36] Referring to a 1967 Esquire cover in which a boy watches Jack Ruby on TV, Coca-Cola and hot dog in hand, Pincus said: “He’ll write a book called I Lost It Watching the Tube…[TV isn’t] just an interpretation of experience; it becomes part of the experience. That’s true with kids looking at TV.”[37] Further, Pincus felt the concrete effect of media and TV on potentially revolutionary consciousness to be entirely detrimental, explaining, “Everything, be it revolution or what have you, turns into a commodity in this society…the media can hype revolution and not worry about it, and we all look at ourselves as products and objects in the way we look at other people.”[38]


Combatting television’s corrective procedures by utilizing its same tools wasn’t attractive to Pincus. He describes the work of Videofreex as “unresponsive,”[39] further emphasizing his viewpoint that an attempt at cultural reprogramming wouldn’t be different enough from the normal operations of television. Someone like Paul Ryan would describe portable video as a “cybernetic extension of man” and its feedback function as “the only language of intelligence and power that is ecologically viable.”[40] Here, there is a sense in which the formal operation of feedback, because of its control function, allows for a greater level of resistance—whereas for Pincus the operational proximity required resisting video altogether.

His critique of Videofreex was that a cultural revolution is illegible without its political equivalent (which was the same charge he leveled against underground film). Explaining his own filmmaking, Pincus stated:

The Videofreex, and in general the people who are in underground video tape that I’ve talked to, have the same kind of mentality as people in underground film. They think that you can bring about a revolution in people’s consciousness, that there can be a cultural revolution without there being a political one…The films I make have to be tied in very strong ways to the consciousness that people presently have. That is, to try to transform that consciousness as opposed to assuming it is already transformed, which is what I think [Stan] Brakhage assumes in his films, or like a lot of people in video tape assume.[41]

His comments here may account for his distance from both earlier and contemporaneous experimental practices that brought the camera into private life—not only by Brakhage, but by Carolee Schneemann, who by 1971 would have just completed Plumb Line (Fuses was finished in 1967). Yet his comments here also hint at the importance, for Pincus, of operating somehow within a form of bourgeois life, especially following his cynicism of the hippie commune from One Step Away. He said:

I think that a very important part of the political revolution is the cultural revolution, but you cannot transform people’s consciousness for the better just on a cultural level. It will also have to effect institutional change, and I don’t think you can do that by going off and living a good life and being a kind of imitation of Christ—which used to be one of the ways to salvation in the Middle ages—and that other people will then follow you.[42]

The counter-conduct of the Pincus’ open-marriage experiment remained, in many ways, solidly within the acceptable realm of middle class life. For the Diaries project, there was never a level of presumed autonomy, but instead an attempt to achieve a kind of purified version of oneself, while still remaining within the structure of the family.[43] Instead of what we might think of today as more radical communal living experiments, the Pincuses remained centered on the self and the body situated within the structures of contemporary life.[44]

Attempting a wholly intimate and transformative relationship to the camera, then, Pincus shunned the technology that would seem to have better suited his experiment. The conversations with and through the camera that characterize Diaries perhaps don’t seem so far off from Paul Ryan’s attempts to envision a kind of “video therapy.” Further, Ryan describes the “feedback experience of video” as, at the time, “cosmic,”[45] noting video’s ability to instantiate a more primal and even spiritual connection with the subject. This would appear to indicate its potential for the rigorous self-examinations that would be attempted in Diaries and possibly Pincus’ political goals.

Instead of this, Pincus decided to utilize a combination of 16mm film and new sync-sound equipment that eliminated the technical need for a collaborator, as had been required of his films with David Neuman. In a 1972 article published in the Filmmakers Newsletter titled “One Person Sync-Sound: A New Approach to Cinema Verite,” Pincus outlined the potential allowed by the development of the Nagra SN recorder—“a 1/8” tape recorder capable of recording dialogue of adequate quality that was small enough to be placed on the subject being filmed.”[46] Previously, Pincus had written A Guide to Filmmaking, the most popular book on technical filmmaking at the time,[47] so his interest in the technological apparatuses for his project is to be expected. Yet here Pincus borders on a kind of filmic technological determinism, claiming that the Nagra SN “overcomes many of the limitations I have encountered with cinéma vérité,”[48] and, further, that it has allowed for the entrance of the camera into private life with a level of intimacy that was previously impossible.[49]

At the end of the piece, Pincus describes more strongly the political importance of the technological developments he discusses. “The sticky questions of exploiting people and ripping them off in traditional cinéma vérité become minimized when the filmmaker enters the space of the film as an equal,” he writes. This entrance was only possible—in a substantial way—based on the ability to cheaply and reliably shoot sync-sound without a crew. Pincus’ investment in sync-sound may be another reason for his rejection of underground film techniques of the 60s.

As much as these new technologies allowed for greater access, Pincus became aware that too much access would ultimately harm the film. As a direct resistance to the “infolding” experience of feedback,[50] Pincus agreed to a provisional ten-year plan with the participants in Diaries: filming would last five years (1971-1976), and then the footage would sit for another five years, until 1981.[51] This five-year delay was designed to lower inhibitions of the subjects, including himself, and resist the media effects of presence as evidenced by television. By forcing a waiting period (in contrast to video’s instant closed circuit), Pincus pittedfilm’s trace of the absent against video’s illusory-summoned self.

The Pincuses and some (unidentified) friends in Vermont, where the Pincuses settled in the mid-70s. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

The Pincuses and some (unidentified) friends in Vermont, where the Pincuses settled in the mid-70s. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

Of 1970s performance and video, Anne Wagner has written that artists “courted effects of presence, in the endless present—the absolute publicity—that their medium too ably provides.” TV functions through “instantaneity—absolute, self-renewing presence—[which] is its overall golden rule—and its illusion.” Wagner’s text emphasizes how video and its mediated performances, through the “non-site of t.v.,” showed “that art’s summoning of selfhood is comprised of what we might call a ‘media effect.’ Media, in fact, can keep the gears of selfhood from being able to engage.”[52] In 2011, Paul Ryan suggested: “Perhaps personal video feedback simply falsifies intimacy with the numinous.”[53] While Ed Pincus undoubtedly recognized something close to the insidiousness of television’s claim on self-presence, his engagement resisted showing its effects on the self, creating instead an experiment to resist these effects through another media. That experiment was Diaries.

I think the Diaries experiment exceeds the limits of the resulting film. It was a five-year experiment documented on film, but as a project, its concerns and strategies indicate much more than the film itself. Combined with their decision to open their marriage, the Diaries project allowed the Pincuses to shift the productive strands of their 60s radicalism. It came from a questioning of those political ideals and the ways in which they sought to organize otherness for functional purposes, which led to an imperative to investigate the locus of political power within the self.

The resulting film has been read as an illustration of the return to order identified with the decade, noting that the film’s emphasis shifts from the negotiation of an open marriage to a greater focus on family life, and particularly the Pincus children, by the end.[54] Yet the initial radicalism of the Diaries project cannot be so hastily ascribed to this narrative. The amount of footage actually filmed over the five-year period amounts to, by Pincus’ count, “something like 32 hours,”[55] (relatively little by today’s standards, but an unusually high volume at the time).Combined with the extreme degree of intrusion and difficulty of the process, this high volume indicates how novel the project was for Pincus’ milieu.

After shooting had finished, Ed Pincus mentioned it as a work in progress and listed it among other films that he felt had attempted to explore “questions about the act of filmmaking.”[56] The completed film—the film Pincus would edit at the end of 1980—was not necessarily an attempt to capture the intricacies of the experience of Diaries, nor even to illustrate the success of the experiment and the new, fuller sense of self and identity it had granted the Pincuses. The film became something else.

In the summer of 1975, Ed and Jane Pincus and their children moved from Cambridge to Vermont. Dennis Sweeney, one of the activists who was involved in Black Natchez, had come to believe that Pincus, New York congressman Allard Lowenstein, and Black Panther Angela Davis were at the center of a plot against him, and that they were sending him radio transmissions that he received through his teeth. He threatened the family, and their children. Ed began commuting from Vermont to MIT, leading a paranoid life.[57] In 1980, Sweeney shot and killed Lowenstein in his New York office. In Diaries, Lowenstein’s death marks the only occasion in which the time passed between the film’s shooting and its editing and subsequent release. Pincus informs the audience of Lowenstein’s death with his narration as the screen turns black.

Within the film, too, the threat of Dennis Sweeney corresponds to a greater emphasis on Pincus’ family and children, which has been utilized to explain the film’s correspondence to the decade’s trajectory as, ultimately, a “swing to the right.”[58] Whether these elements within the film correspond to the Pincus’ form-of-life experiment is harder to parse.

Interviewed by Scott MacDonald, Ed Pincus explains the disparity between the shot footage and the completed film, saying:

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.[59]

Downplaying the significance of his editing, Pincus claims that its effects on the film itself were minimal. Yet the structure imposed on the footage—thus the structure that was imposed on the experiment itself—resulted in a kind of illegibility of the project’s radicalism. The five-year delay, designed to recuperate the potential of film in opposition to the instantaneity of video, also lessened the centrality of project’s initial aspirations to the completed film. By the end of the film, Jane has clearly become more comfortable with the camera, and Ed appears more invested in their relationship, perhaps providing the sense of change Ed had sought all along. The Pincus open marriage, though, continued into the 90s.[60]

Ed Pincus, seen here towards the end of the project, while living in Vermont. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

Ed Pincus, seen here towards the end of the project, while living in Vermont. Diaries (1971-1976) (200 min. color, sound), 1982. Video Still.

Moments throughout the film offer indications of the attempts to forge a potentially new kind of life—characterized by an evolution into “fuller selves”—within the institutional structures of everyday life. That the open marriage itself was a kind of counter-conduct or soft subversion speaks to this as well. At one point Ed trips on mescaline, during which he tape-records his thoughts, an event that intensifies the interaction between the subject and the apparatus (in this case not a camera) in order to hasten the effects of self-purification such a process could bring about.[61] Former collaborator David Neuman, who appears throughout the film, has the roving qualities of a beatnik. They are all engaged in the small experiments that sought to make daily life different from its dominant forms.

One long sequence, from the summer of 1972, shows Jane, the Pincus children, Ann Popkin, and her girlfriend Trudy Barnett. Ed, though mostly filming, appears as well. Everyone is naked; they lounge in the sun, sitting in an inflatable swimming pool. Their nudity is a nudity that reasserts itself throughout the film—not just Jane and Ann, but Ed, too is frequently naked before the camera. Jane in the shower, Jane playing the flute. Ed and Ann climbing into his loft bed in the darkness. Their nudity, I think, is not just the nudity that chases an ever-elusive presence; it’s also the nudity of the informant who strips down to show they’re not wearing a wire, to make sure it’s just them.

While the film offers traces of the kinds of experimentations that characterized the project, it also shows far more problematic instances of the experiment’s failures, already indicated by Pincus’ rejection of Jane as a collaborator on the film.[62] Among these are a scene in which Jane reproaches Ed for his inability to acknowledge her domestic labor, to which he responds curtly: “How much do you do in the way of breadwinning?” Moments like these indicate that the Diaries experiment didn’t go far enough in the construction of a radical form-of-life within contemporary society.

Towards the end of the film, Ed is visiting a friend’s apartment. She looks at the camera and asks how he can still interact with the world—with people—from behind it. Ed responds that it doesn’t get in the way that much; the cameras are smaller than they used to be, it’s just him, and the sound isn’t a problem. “You’re giving technical answers,” she responds, “to philosophical questions.”[63] The distance between the Diaries experiment and the completed film is owed, perhaps, to Ed Pincus’ foundational conflation of these strategies.

*Giampaolo Bianconi is a master’s student in the Film Studies Program at Columbia University.


Sadly, Ed Pincus passed away this past Tuesday, November 5th in Vermont, where he had lived with his wife Jane for the past two decades. He had been battling a terminal blood disease and documenting his struggle with the help of a collaborator, Lucia Small. Diaries remains one of the most important works of documentary filmmaking of the last 40 years, and the influence of Pincus’ oeuvre is seen throughout the last generation of filmmakers. He taught at MIT, served as a visiting filmmaker at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and Harvard University, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

[1] Vincent Canby, “Ed Pincus Makes Diaries of His Own Life,” The New York Times 17 Nov. 1982: The New York Times, Web, 08 May 2013, <;.

[2] At least not in any supposedly complete or designated dramatic sense, as was attempted by the PBS series An American Family (1973). An American Family claimed to chronicle the day-to-day lives of the Santa Barbara, California Loud family and followed dramatic arcs including the divorce of parents Bill and Pat Loud, as well as coming out of son Lance Loud.

[3] Ibid.

[4] After Jane says the process involves “a lot of agony for the wife,” Neuman can be heard exclaiming, “But she’ll live through it. And if she doesn’t it’s gonna be a really great movie!”

[5] Ed Pincus, “One Person Sync-Sound: A New Approach to Cinema Verite,” Filmmakers Newsletter, December 1972, 24-30, 30.

[6] G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Film-Makers, New York: Doubleday & Co, 1971, 331.

[7] Molly Nesbit also mentions that Foucault passed through Natchez on one of his visits to the United States in the 70s.

[8] Levin, 1971, 334.

[9] Ibid, 333.

[10] Newsreel was more explicitly engaged in acts of political consciousness-raising through the use of documentary film than these other vérité makers, who, as Pincus notes, focused on people as fixed types or characters. His critiques of those filmmakers are discussed at length throughout Levin, 1971.

[11] Levin 1971, 334.

[12] Ed Pincus, “New Possibilities in Film and the University,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies Vol. 2 No. 2 (May 1977), 159-178, 172.

[13] This is the term Pincus uses in his 1972 article “One Person Sync-Sound: A New Approach to Cinema Verite.”

[14] Jim Lane, “The Career and Influence of Ed Pincus: Shifts in Documentary Epistemology,” Journal of Film and Video Vol. 49 No. 4 (Winter 1997), 3-17, 8. This article also features useful and detailed readings of specific scenes from the film.

[15] Levin, 1971, 360.

[16] Pincus, 1977, 166.

[17] Levin, 1971, 371.

[18] Regardless of the fact that Ed Pincus’ own appearances in the completed Diaries can be considered minimal (as Vincent Canby suggested upon the film’s initial release), the degree of his own involvement in the project is just as important here.

[19] Levin, 1971, 369. Also note that “pig” was a slang term used to refer to police officers in the 1960s and 70s.

[20] Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” Social Text No. 9/10 (Spring/Summer 1984), 178-209, 189. He continues, describing the women’s movement as “a Yenan of a new and unpredictable kind which is still impregnable at the present moment.”

[21] Jane Pincus, interviewed by Katelyn Lucy, transcript of digital video recording, 29 November 2008, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA, 8.

[22] Its designation as “a course” likely derives from its existence as a class at MIT.

[23] Jane Pincus, 2008, 8.

[24] In a more recent interview with Scott MacDonald, Ed Pincus says: “I sometimes think a better title would have been ‘What Happened When the Winds of the Women’s Movement Blew Open My Front Door.’” Ed and Jane Pincus, “Personal Effects: Ed Pincus on His Magnum Opus Diaries (1971-1976),” Interview by Scott MacDonald, Moving Image Source, Museum of the Moving Image, 21 June 2012, 9 May 2013, <;.

[25] An ambivalent obituary for Nena O’Neill appeared in the New York Times in 2006: <;.

[26] Félix Guattari, “Molecular Revolutions,” in Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977, New York: Semiotext(e), 2009, 275-281, 280.

[27] Ibid, 278.

[28] “The idea is that you would get knowledge. Knowledge is power. And you share the power and—and you let the doctors know what you want, and they’ll see what you want, and world will be changed—they’ll change it according to what you want. And it was really optimistic, really naïve, really exciting. And that’s how we began.” Jane Pincus, 2008, 8.

[29] From Ed Pincus’ program notes for his own films, available here: <>.

[30] See Levin, 1971.

[31] Ibid, 363.

[32] Deirdre Boyle, Subject to Change: Guerilla Television Revisited, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 27.

[33] Paul Ryan, “Cybernetic Guerilla Warfare,” Radical Software Vol. I No. 3 (Spring 1971), 1-2, 1.

[34] Levin, 1971, 370.

[35] Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October Vol. 1 (Spring, 1976), 50-64, 56.

[36] Hollis Frampton, “The Withering Away of the State of Art,” On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009, 261-268, 264.

[37] Levin, 1971, 370.

[38] Ibid. Pincus thoughts here are also interesting in relation to Frazer Ward’s thinking about Chris Burden’s Shoot, in which he emphasizes the increasing centrality of watching in the early 70s, and further of Burden’s performance as having “revealed the public, not as an empirical category, but as a gray zone, defined by the suspension of judgment and choice.” Frazer Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching ‘Shoot,’” October vol. 95 (Winter, 2001), 114-130, 130.

[39] Levin, 1971, 368.

[40] Ryan, 1971, 1.

[41] Levin, 1971, 369-370.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Discussing revolts of conduct including those from the Middle Ages, Foucault says: “These revolts of conduct may well be specific in their form and objective, but whatever the identifiable character of their specificity, they are never autonomous, they never remain autonomous.” Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell, New York: Picador, 2007, 197.

[44] See Hakim Bey, T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, available here:

[45] Paul Ryan, “Cybernetic Guerilla Warfare Revisited: From Klein Worms to Relational Circuits,” Interview by Felicity D. Scott and Mark Wasiuta, Grey Room 44 (Summer, 2011), 114-133, 124, 126.

[46] Pincus, 1972, 24-25.

[47] As claimed by Pincus’ short biography in the Filmmakers Newsletter.

[48] Pincus, 1972, 25.

[49] “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.” Ed and Jane Pincus, 2012.

[50] “‘Back in the day,’ when we called it ‘infolding,’ the feedback experience of video was thought of as cosmic. Infolding is a term taken from the cosmological thinker Teilhard de Chardin,” says Paul Ryan, in Ryan, 2011, 124.

[51] While the film opened to theatrical engagement in New York in 1982, whether or not it was completed in 1980 or 1981 is unclear.  In an interview with Scott MacDonald, Pincus explained: “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 cinéma 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.” Ed and Jane Pincus, 2012. It is here, also, that Ed Pincus states: “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.”

[52] Anne E. Wagner, “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence,” October 91 (Winter, 2000), 59-80, 80.

[53] Ryan, 2011, 124.

[54] See Lane, 1997.

[55] Ed and Jane Pincus, 2012.

[56] Pincus, 1977, 171.

[57] “Basically I created the life of a paranoid—for six years.” Ed and Jane Pincus, 2012.

[58] Swing to the Right, a 1982 album by Utopia.

[59] Ed and Jane Pincus, 2012.

[60] Ibid.

[61] This was likely influenced by footage from One Step Ahead in which Harry, leader of the hippie commune, was filmed tripping on LSD. That footage was made into its own short film, Harry’s Trip.

[62] Explicit and innovative collaborative practices were among those with which Carolee Schneemann had already engaged extensively during the 1960s.

[63] Towards the end of Cinema 1, which appeared in France in 1983, Deleuze writes that “We hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it—no more than we believe that an action can force a situation to disclose itself, even partially.” Perhaps Deleuze’s comments here seem more apt for Pincus’ move from direct cinema/direct action towards Diaries, but I think the reception of the film in 1982 indicates something reminiscent of Deleuze’s thinking here.