Film Review: One Cut, One Life

Documentarian Ed Pincus’ imminent mortality is the leaping-off point for this beautifully honest portrait of Manhattanites dealing with the largest of life issues.
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On the surface, I admit to not knowing much about the figures featured in One Cut, One Life, and I was put off by the opening portentous quote from Tolstoy, followed by an elderly man talking about his recent diagnosis of terminal illness while a younger, avid woman relentlessly trains her camera on him. Initially, this doc seemed like a narcissistic, somewhat exploitative downer.

But filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small—who also happen to be the two aforementioned personalities—overcame my resistance, cannily starting their movie on a deceptively low-key note before peeling back the layers of their respective individual and shared lives, like an onion, to create a quite compelling discovery of human existence.

Pincus, who died of his illness in 2013, was known as the father of the first-person documentary, with titles like Black Natchez and Diaries: 1971-1976. Small was herself a documentarian, whose work includes My Father, the Genius, about her visionary architect father, Glen Howard Small. Their initial collaboration in 2007, The Axe in the Attic, about Hurricane Katrina's devastation, ended badly, with the two severing their relationship before coming together again on this film.  Both projects deeply disturbed and threatened Pincus' longtime wife, who had already endured her husband's desire for an open marriage and other unconventionalities.

Once it’s revealed that Pincus’ spouse, the former Jane Kates, who is particularly well-spoken about her emotional and aesthetic resistance, is also the author of the seminal feminist book Our Bodies, Ourselves, the film starts to become fascinating. Pincus moved his echt-Manhattan bohemian family, including two children, to Vermont and became a peony farmer. We see both him and Jane in Diaries, young, attractive and vibrant, as he pushes the boundaries of personal documentary and she talks about her disapproval of his many extracurricular affairs, and inevitably wonder what happened to her—as well as the women's movement itself—to so subjugate her own identity to make this man happy.

Small herself went through even more harrowing experiences, with the back-to-back sudden deaths of two women friends—the first, Susan Wolfe, a murder victim of a vicious ex-lover, and the second, her editor Karen Schmeer, in a horrifically random traffic accident. Although the film is entitled One Cut, One Life, we actually get to know ingratiating, intelligent and warm Small far more intimately than Pincus, who rather comes across as an egocentric artist-at-all-costs, wielding a grating male superiority over both wife and collaborator. At one point he dismisses Small's efforts, pulling rank as he mentions his vaster experience as a filmmaker, and when Jane, who has been a distinctly ambivalent presence in the film, speaks of their marriage's challenges, he says, "It's been intense." "What do you mean?" she cries, mindful of his medical death sentence as well as the ever-intrusive camera, "It is intense!"

Pincus' desire was to somehow cheat, or at least allay, death a little, choosing not to have a bone marrow transplant in the hope of enjoying one more spring season of cherry blossoms. He's at last truly poignant in his final moments, head shaved with burningly fervent eyes, and luckily surrounded by a still-loving family, bringing this ultimately rewarding, deep and highly personal document to a close.

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