An elegy for the dead, the dying, and those who live on, “One Cut, One Life” is a singular work made from a double vision, that of documentarians Lucia Small and the late Ed Pincus. It’s a thing of lovely imperfections: profound and banal, self-absorbed and insightful, weighted with grief and buoyed by resilience. In short, as messy and precious as life itself.
Pincus was dying when he made the film, and Small was reeling from the violent deaths of two close friends. “One Cut, One Life” charts the last year of Pincus’s life — he died in November 2013 — and it observes the slow inroads of the bone marrow disease called MDS while darting backward in time to earlier films the two have made separately and together.
The genre is personal documentary, and Pincus was one of its pioneers. In addition to starting MIT’s film department and writing (with Steven Ascher) what remains the standard nuts-and-bolts guide, “The Filmmaker’s Handbook,” Pincus made a series of films of which the best known is “Diaries 1971-1976” (1981), clips from which are seen here. In it, he documents his life with wife Jane Pincus (a coauthor of the classic women’s health guide “Our Bodies Ourselves”), their children, and friends with a charming relentlessness that goes beyond navel-gazing to uncover generational truths.
Pincus and Small, some 20 years his junior, paired up to co-direct “The Axe in the Attic” (2007), about the social fallout of Hurricane Katrina, and then went their separate ways. You sense they reunited for “One Cut, One Life” out of unarticulated despair, as Pincus grapples with whether to go ahead with a bone marrow transplant and Small copes with the deaths of her roommate and friend, film editor Karen Schmeer, in a car crash, and the murder of another friend, artist Susan Woolf, by Woolf’s boyfriend.
The filmmakers’ professional relationship veers into more intimate emotional territory, which is problematic for Pincus’s wife, to say the least. But what bothers the latter more, that her husband has a special bond with this younger colleague or that the two never, ever put their cameras down? Some of the most powerful scenes in “One Cut, One Life” are those in which Jane stubbornly defends the notion of the undocumented life.
“It changes what the reality is,” she says about the constant filming. “It’s indecent. My husband has received a death sentence and I don’t see why I should give him over to anyone else for their delectation.” And yet she, too, picks up the camera in some scenes to record her husband. As Small acknowledges at one point, “It contains the pain of the world when you film.”
“One Cut, One Life” — the title comes from a Japanese swordsmanship motto — is full of people talking and explaining and doubting themselves and others, the chatter of humans trying to keep darkness at bay. Some of it seems like blather, some of it feels hard-earned, and sometimes those are two sides of the same coin. If Pincus is having a crisis of the body, Small’s is of the spirit: She’s not in a relationship — there’s a very funny section in which she briefly considers stalking actor Paul Giamatti — and the randomness of her friends’ deaths has cut the legs out from under her. The camera is her confidant and confessional; it almost doesn’t matter that we’re on the other side of the lens.
There are glimpses of the filmmakers’ earlier works — “Black Natchez” (1965), Pincus’s documentary about the civil rights movement; Small’s 2002 “My Father, the Genius,” in which she deals with the legacy of her architect dad — but there are just as many moments when this movie just goes outside and soaks up images of nature, as if Pincus wants to see things while he still can.
These scenes offer the solace of the cyclical: changing foliage, the spring peepers that Small uses for affecting aural counterpoint toward the end of the film. They’re also part of a professional and artistic relationship as rich as (if much smaller than) Ed’s long marriage to Jane. “I like filming with you,” Pincus says to Small on one of these excursions, and as simple as that is, it feels like a statement of faith, a declaration of love, and a moviemaker’s farewell.