When Ed Pincus (“Black Natchez,” “Diaries 1971-76”), the oft-proclaimed father of the first-person documentary, was diagnosed with a lethal bone marrow disease, he decided to chronicle his post-diagnostic existence from two separate but intersecting points of view: his own and that of his sometime muse/collaborator Lucia Small, herself still reeling from the violent deaths of her two closest friends. Unlike more generally philosophical, life-affirming autobiographical docus about dying, “One Cut, One Life” rehashes old problems and tries to resolve multiple unresolved issues already exposed in previous films, proving as exasperating as it is weirdly compelling.
Several structural threads loosely tie the film together. First and foremost there is the odd man or, rather, odd woman out: Jane, Pincus’ wife, whose constant presence serves as the irritant around which the film essays to construct a pearl. Jane, herself a painter and a formidable feminist author, makes no bones about the fact that she greatly resents the camera’s constant closeup intrusions into her private life, even though she played a very large role in Pincus’ “Diaries.” Nor do these intrusions let up for a second in “One Cut, One Life,” as Jane’s emotional responses to the ongoing drama are ruthlessly tracked. Pincus intimates that his wife was partly responsible for his abandonment of a successful filmmaking career, as founder and teacher of first-person cinema, to become a commercial flower farmer in Vermont for 30 years.
Here co-director Small (“My Father, the Genius”) enters the picture. She revived Pincus’ passion for filmmaking, and in 2007 they embarked on a docu together, “The Axe in the Attic,” following Katrina-displaced inhabitants of New Orleans. But the obvious objective virtues of “Axe” are almost obscured by the filmmakers’ personal bickering over opposing ideas about the appropriatenss of white Northerners making a film about poor Southern blacks, a dialogue that feels more poorly placed and self-indulgent than sensibly theoretical. The filmmakers cut the docu while staying at the Pincuses’ Vermont house.
Apparently the “Axe” experience not only undermined Pincus and Small’s deep if nonsexual relationship, but awakened old insecurities and jealousies that a decades-younger blonde workmate does little to dispel. Large sections of “One Cut, One Life” are devoted to the women’s rehashing of this past, Small feeling guilty about being the “other woman,” and Jane now even more unwilling to share her husband’s final days with not one but two cameras. The two women struggle to accommodate Pincus, who shruggingly evokes artistic necessity as if pleading the Fifth.
The third structuring principle, typical of films about terminal illness, is that of time itself, as intertitles announce the changing seasons. Though Pincus is a poor candidate for it, a bone-marrow transplant holds his only chance for long-term survival. Yet the procedure would lay him low for a good while and might even hasten his demise. He makes a deal with the devil and postpones the operation so he can make his film and enjoy life in relative comfort. Rounds of doctors, discussions of platelet counts and various medical procedures keep the life-and-death drama alive without consuming much screen time.
Instead, copious footage of two gamboling dogs, one owned by the Pincuses and the other a canine legacy of Small’s slain friend Suzanne, visually stand in for the passage of time. Numerous shots of nature and blossoming flowers, visits from his lively, irreverent family and a willingness to risk all for a chance at another spring attest to Ed’s unquenchable zest for life, yet cannot quite disguise the messiness, even pettiness that are often the consequences of a truly first-person cinema. Unlike, say, dying Portuguese director Joaquim Pinto in his whimsically titled “What’s Next? Remind Me,” Pincus seeks not to refamiliarize himself with life’s possible meanings as much as to obsessively seek justification for life choices, past and present.