By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 14, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
ROXBURY, Vt. – Up here, May showers bring June flowers. For Ed Pincus, it is the secret of his success as a specialty cut flower grower. When the flowers grown in fairer climes are drooping, the late-bloomers planted along his verdant hillside are just blossoming. Out of sync with the accepted doggerel, he can sell a day late for a dollar more.
Pincus can only hope the same holds true for the documentary he is making about Katrina and its diaspora. It won’t be done in time for the deluge of Katrina movies that will debut on the August anniversary of the hurricane. Instead, the documentary Pincus is making with the Boston filmmaker Lucia Small – its early funding fittingly floated on his sale of peony roots to Holland – won’t be ready until early next year. By then, he says, it might as well be called “Not Another F…… Katrina Movie.”
But it won’t be just another Katrina movie, if for no other reason than its compelling back story: Roused from a long artistic hibernation by what he calls “the domestic story of our time,” Ed Pincus at 67 emerges from his mountain sanctuary to return to the front lines of the kind of documentary filmmaking he had pioneered 40 years earlier only to abandon under duress with the passing of the era he had so honestly documented, and embodied.
In the rarefied world of documentary film, Pincus is a legend. He was a seminal figure in the 1960s and ’70s. His cinema verite classic “Black Natchez” depicted from the inside out a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle in that Mississippi town. His epic three-hour, 20-minute personal documentary “Diaries: 1971-1976” was an excruciating, endearing, let-it-all-hang-out chronicle of his life and open marriage in the early days of the women’s liberation movement, of which his wife, Jane, one of the editors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” was an integral part.
And then, at the height of his career and in the midst of making “Diaries,” Pincus, his wife and their two small children faded from view into Vermont‘s emerald folds. They were being stalked by Dennis Sweeney.
It was Sweeney who, as a young white civil rights worker in Mississippi, had brought Pincus to Natchez in 1965. But in the ’70s, Sweeney tumbled deep into madness, hacksawing the bridgework out of his mouth to still the voices in his head. He came to believe, and told Pincus, that “the killer elite, members of the international Jewish conspiracy on the run since Watergate,” were controlling his thoughts, trying to force him to marry a Jew, and responsible for every manner of mayhem including the plane crash that killed Yankee catcher Thurman Munson. This elite, Sweeney alleged, consisted of Pincus himself; the radical academic Angela Davis, who did for the Afro what Che Guevara did for the beret; and former Congressman Allard Lowenstein, the whirling dervish of civil rights and anti-war activism who had swept Sweeney, among many, into the movement.
In 1980, Sweeney visited Lowenstein in his Manhattan office, shot him to death, and took a seat in the reception area to smoke a cigarette until police arrived. For those who knew Lowenstein, the genius behind the Dump Johnson movement in 1968, it was a gut-kicking epilogue to the Sixties akin to the murder of John Lennon a couple dozen blocks away later that same year.
A quarter-century passes. Ed and Jane Pincus are living in Shangri-La surrounded by fields of flowers that he cuts and sells across the country and around the world. The undulating curves of the NorthfieldRange caress the horizon. A Tibetan Mastiff, a furry behemoth named Louie, keeps the bear away from the front door. Their daughter, Sami, and son, Benjamin, long grown, live an hour away in Burlington. There is one grandchild and another on the way.
“W.C. Fields said, `It was a woman who drove me to drink and I’ve been grateful to her ever since,”’ Pincus says. “I used to say it was Dennis who drove me to the country and I’ve been grateful to him ever since.”
But by now the bloom is off the rose.
“He kind of felt dead to himself for a while,” Jane Pincus says of her husband.
Three years ago, Pincus and Small met judging a film festival in Boston. It was his first foray back into that world after 20 years away. They shared the same film sense and politics. They traded movies. Small, 43, realized how much her film, “My Father the Genius,” about her fractious father, an avant garde 1960s architect, owed to Pincus, whose work had influenced the autobiographical filmmakers she most admired.
They decided to collaborate. He would be her guru and she would be his guide through the much-changed world of documentary film.
“It was like working with Rip Van Winkle,” Small says.
“And then Katrina came,” Pincus says.
“I was obsessed,” Small says. “I started to film it off the TV, until I had to turn it off. I started to have nightmares.”
“It took a lot of the themes I was interested in my whole life _ race and poverty _ and made them available and visual,” Pincus says. “And then the whole theme of diaspora and being suddenly torn from your home _ it probably has Jewish roots _ and starting a whole new life in a whole different culture.”
Just before Thanksgiving they embarked on a two-month road trip from New England to New Orleans and back, encountering along the way the vivid variety of those scattered by the storm. But Pincus and Small were also contending with each other over what to film and how to film it, interweaving a kind of cross-gender, cross-generational buddy movie _ Butch Cassidy and Louise _ into their Katrina chronicle.
As they homed in on the themes and geography that first inspired him, Pincus knew he still had it _ the touch, the passion, the eye _ his “Zen camera,” as a Cambridge reviewer once called it. Even his shoulder held up. On the trail of the dispossessed, Pincus was rejuvenated.
“I loved it,” Pincus says. “I felt like a kid again.”
As always, the search is for truth and beauty, not answers or clarity.
“This film is meant to muddy the waters,” he says.
Pincus was a Harvard graduate student in philosophy when he went to Natchez in 1965 with collaborator David Neuman.
Without interviews, experts or much in the way of narration, but with an eye for everything, “Black Natchez” plunges the viewer into a moment fresh with tension within a black community riven across lines of age, class, sex and disposition toward nonviolence.
“I know of nothing in print that can match what `Black Natchez’ offers: a direct look at a community, and one seized by a crisis, as well as a look at all sorts of things that social scientists study and study and study,” the Harvard University psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote about the film then in The New Republic.
In the 1990s, New Orleans historian Lance Hill started a book on the militant black Deacons for Defense of the ’60s, largely lost to historical memory but not, he heard tell, to Pincus’ gaze. For 10 years he searched for “Black Natchez” and for Pincus, finally making a pilgrimage to the Roxbury hilltop, and arranging to have all 52 hours Pincus shot in Natchez made part of the collection at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University.
Suddenly, Hill says, `’I’m in a time machine.”
In their 1967 film “One Step Away,” the Pincus-Neuman time machine transports you to Haight-Ashbury’s Hippie scene, centering on Harry, his girlfriend Ricky and her baby Josh. They are scruffy, self-important, if comically likable losers. Ricky blows marijuana smoke into her baby’s face, but memorably tells her concerned father, “You should never give a child acid until they’re 8 years old, and then only if they ask for it.”
The most appealing characters are Ricky’s and Harry’s fathers _ open, loving, skeptical and wise.
Public television commissioned the film but never showed it.
In “Diaries,” Pincus stretched the feminist insight that the “personal is political” into what filmmaker and writer Jim Lane, who studied under Pincus, calls “the story of a generation.” Scene by scene.
“At Ed’s men’s group; Ed talks about going to New York for Jane’s abortion.”
“Jane folding laundry; she talks to Ed about extramarital relationships and housework.”
“Kids play freeze-tag in Vermont. Sami convinces Ben to be `it.”’
The critics raved.
“Ed Pincus has created a comic melodrama of family life in the Seventies that’s as engrossing, saddening, maddening and haunting as any fiction,” Stephen Schiff wrote in Film Comment in 1981. “He has taken a magical leap over the heads of cinema verite and cinematic storytelling into a dazzling new realm.”
“What surprises me,” Schiff wrote, “is how thrilling it is to see so deeply into anybody; even into such an ordinary, mixed-up man.”
Pincus and Small have not settled on a title for the new film.
Pincus likes “The Ax in the Attic.” He filmed Hurricane Betsy for UPI in 1965; “What they learned from Betsy is that you can get stuck in your attic with no way out.”
In the attic of the Pincuses’ studio, where he and Small will edit the 200 hours of footage they shot, are framed color photos he took of his neighbors in Roxbury.
There is the road commissioner who swapped wives with his best friend, and the recluse who worked 25 years on mathematical problems in a house that his wife refused to clean until he fixed the hot water, and neither did either. There is the mechanic from another state who was on his way over to shoot his ex-wife and teenage daughter when he asked himself, “Are you crazy?” _ and moved to Roxbury instead. There is the logger who cut off his thumb doing some home carpentry his wife had been after him to do.
One of Pincus’ favorites was a handyman who wouldn’t take money for his work. He slept in a barn and subsisted on nuts. On his return from the Second World War he was jilted by his girlfriend. “She was walking through the tall corn with her new boyfriend and he shot and killed her and the law accepted that it was an accident _ He thought it was a deer,” Pincus says. “I always thought he became a saint as a way of atoning.”
Pincus planned to make a book out of these photos and stories, until he found out that one of his subjects was molesting his grandsons. “I said to myself, `This will make a great anecdote for my book,’ and then as I drove home I got more and more nauseated, and I stopped working on it.”
Pincus is not the first Brooklyn-born Jew to make good in Vermont. There is Bernie Sanders, the state’s lone congressman, and ice cream entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. But Pincus had to work hard to blend in, trading his Ivy League vocabulary for simple Anglo-Saxon, and learning to plow by reading about it in a book. It worked. Within a few years of moving to Roxbury, he was elected a selectman.
Jane Pincus, a visual artist and writer, sings in a local church choir. She still contributes to new editions of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” in its day a revolutionary book on women’s health, but is heartsick over its drift into the slick, safe mainstream.
Ed calls Jane his sweetie, and the two months he was gone filming were tough.
“The 2-year-old who lives inside me felt abandoned,” she says. “I had never lived so long by myself, up here by myself in the middle of winter.”
Her 92-year-old mother reminded her that Ed’s filmmaking career had been cut unnaturally short.
In 1977, after years of mounting menace, Pincus agreed to meet Sweeney on a snowy Cambridge street corner.
“I’m figuring knife is the best case, gun is the worst case. And Dennis says, `Take off your glasses,’ and I was so happy,” Pincus says. He knew Sweeney was only going to beat him with his fists.
Benjamin Pincus, who in “Diaries” cried at the prospect of being “it,” is now the sensei at the elegant aikido studio he founded in Burlington. His father studies and teaches there, sometimes writing for the newsletter.
“Aikido does have a very special notion of the attacker,” he wrote in 2004. “The attacker is not seen as a bundle of evil energy but rather as someone out of balance _ a man with his hair on fire, dangerous to himself, to you and to others around him.”
Filling in for his son one day in May, he teaches the class how to avoid being stabbed in the back.
“You can’t look. If I have to turn around and look, it’s all over. You just got to go like this,” he says, swinging around and in one fluid motion seizing the weapon and bringing the attacker down.
Sweeney, diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, was found unable to stand trial for the murder of Lowenstein and committed to a state mental hospital. In 2000 he was released and at last report was working as a carpenter in the HudsonValley. According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, there are still conditions he must abide by (they cannot specify publicly what they are), and the state wants the conditions extended.
Lowenstein is buried close by John and Robert Kennedy in ArlingtonCemetery. His oldest son, Frank, is a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry. His younger son, Tom, and daughter, Kate, have worked with an organization of murder victims’ families who oppose the death penalty. In May, Tom married a woman at her mother’s New Orleans home, a home still mostly wrecked by Katrina.
In an e-mail, the business manager for Angela Davis, a professor of the history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says Davis was completely unaware that she was part of Sweeney’s axis of evil.
And if you Google Ed Pincus, the Internet Movie Database replies, “Growing flowers in Vermont.”
A man dodges the demons of his times, creating beauty on higher ground until he feels compelled to descend back into the world and inspect the damage of the great flood. A beautiful Terrence Malick film, perhaps, with a touch of Woody Allen and the very occasional lapse into Ingmar Bergman.
“There’s a funny emptiness in the air,” Pincus says, sitting on his front porch, gazing into the distance.
“It’s the thunderstorms coming,” his wife says. But no, after days of drenching May rain, the thunder doesn’t come.