Ed Pincus in New York City as seen in "One Cut, One Life." Photo: Lucia Small.

Director Ed Pincus in New York City as seen in “One Cut, One Life.” Photo: Lucia Small.

In Aikido, a form of Japanese martial arts, the term “one cut, one life” is a way of saying everything could be the last time. Everything counts. And in the documentary film by Lucia Small and Ed Pincus of the same title, everything does, because Pincus is living with a terminal illness and these two filmmakers and friends decide to have a final collaboration — one last homage to life — before the Grim Reaper makes the final cut.

Pincus was considered by many as the father of first-person, non-fiction film, and One Cut, One Life is about as up close and personal as you can get — sharing a meal, a memory, even a bed with the subject in question. In this case, as an indispensable co-director, Small turns the camera on herself as much as her subject, hence throwing into question whether the piece is meant to be an homage to the man or to the on-again, off-again relationship that they shared.

Pincus’ claim to fame was Diaries (1971-1976), a no-holds-barred exploration of his open marriage and family life. An earlier effort in the late ’60s, Black Natchez, looked deep into the divisions of a black community. An objective, distanced approach to his gradual and irreversible unraveling was never part of his game plan. Neither was it Small’s.

Small, who gives us an unsparing look at her own life during the filming, relocates to Vermont from New York City to shadow Pincus. She’s there when he visits doctors, confronting the progression of his leukemia while considering his options for a bone marrow transplant. Just as difficult are the conversations with Pincus’ wife, Jane, who feels the film is a way of his taking control. She feels sharing him with others is simply “unfair.” There’s also the added element of Jane’s jealousy. It’s been a pretty complex relationship between her husband and a talented and attractive collaborator who is 25 years his junior.

Small had met Pincus while serving on a film jury, having made her own successful directorial debut with My Father, the Genius (2002). She was a member of a younger generation who shared his cinéma vérité approach, and so when he approached her about collaborating on The Axe in the Attica film about the diaspora of Hurricane Katrina (which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2007) — she didn’t hesitate. For Small to re-enter the life of her mentor six years later, under such heightened and fragile circumstances, became a risky leap of faith.

Just consider the circumstances. However life-affirming in the intention, this is a documentary about intimacy. Pincus’ wife senses the love, however collegial, that exists between the two filmmakers and tells us so. Jane was hardly a shrinking violet when it came to her husband’s career. As a feminist, she had her own breakout publishing success with Our Bodies, Ourselves, all while Pincus was founding the MIT film lab in the late ’60s and publishing Guide to Filmmaking. These three don’t mince words and much of the strength inherent in their story comes from this just under-the-surface tension, the push-and-pull dynamic we feel when they interact. In truth, it’s this electrifying magnetism between our three protagonists that acts as the glue, and which holds the entire mishmash of just another real-to-life documentary together. In Jane’s case, she compares the filming to a form of rape: “It’s taking me away from me.” In Pincus’ view: “Making a film from life is like being a tightrope walker — you never know when you’re going to fall.”

And falling down, at least the aftermath of it with all the residual cuts and bruises incurred, happened to Small in a sequence we see that was shot two years prior to One Cut, One Life. It was perhaps the toughest period in her life, and she trains the camera unflinchingly on her bedridden self. We are told that two of her closest female friends had died by violent means within a month of one another — one by a fatal shooting from an enraged Russian boyfriend, the other by a senseless car swerving out of control. Despair is written all over the woman’s face at such a loss.

One technique that Small and Pincus use throughout the doc is an extreme close-up to catch the slightest fluctuation of mood. Arts Fuse critic Gerald Peary remarked that the film reflected “the psychological intensity and the harrowing honesty of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces.” That’s a big order to fill and it’s important to remember that Bergman’s best work was fictional, highly symbolic and tightly controlled by the director. Here we get a loose and fluidly improvised reality as the voiceover narration drones on. There’s no relief from the close-up in question until the director decides it’s time to move on.

When reviewing Pincus’ Diaries in 1982 for The New York Times, film critic Vincent Canby alluded to the director’s “obsessive self-absorption.” Thirty-three years later, in the glorified age of the “selfie” portrait and amidst the immediate gratification from YouTube and Facebook interactions, such critical observations would seem “old hat” if not irrelevant. For those who buy into the premise of such navel-gazing, there lies an understanding that out of such self-investigations truths about what it is to be human can emerge.

Ed Pincus practices Aikido with his son, Ben. Photo: Lucia Small.

Ed Pincus practices Aikido with his son, Ben, as seen in “One Cut, One Life.” Photo: Lucia Small.

If both directors hover around their personal moments of grief and confusion — caught in a kind of moral morass between life and death — there are lovely, even radiant moments as well. Pincus’ son, Ben, teaches martial arts in Burlington, Vermont and is seen putting his father through some rigorous moves during a brief remission period. Jane anchors herself with the natural world and her own creative spirit. She and Pincus muse over a familiar frog pond. At another point, she manages a twangy rendition of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” with a zither accompaniment, their grandson and family dog laughing and barking on the sidelines. Still later, she talks about a pastel abstract on the wall that she’s obviously proud of showing.

There’s an unmistakable connection with the transitions of seasons, combined with the ups and downs of Pincus’ illness as he discusses his odds. When the chemotherapy fails, he contemplates the point of a transplant. If he has a year of high spirits, then it’s a possibility. He tells us he was a gambler in Brooklyn at age 12. “Two will get you five,” he says. Small describes her biggest fear: that after he is gone, she will watch footage of him and not be able to pick up the phone and call. The choice to divide the film into parts that echo the changing of the seasons, the sense of time passing, is a good one. Pincus reminds his collaborator of the second law of thermodynamics — that time moves forward in only one direction.

This juxtaposition with nature is shown in exquisitely shot sequences — these two obviously know their way around the proper F-stop — we are given the beauty of spring blossoms in the early evening light, with the accompanying sounds effectively interspersed, i.e. rain on the new petals and the pond, the rustle of wind through the overhanging branches. There’s nothing exotic here, so why does this work so well? Because we sense as Pincus himself knows that such beauty is transitory like his own life span.

A little black humor asserts itself in a surprising way. The two directors find themselves on the subway where a hefty court reporter confronts them. Guessing them to be artists, she suddenly launches into her own philosophy about life, how she doesn’t want to linger if she’s struck with a heart attack. Pincus is left a little speechless with her no-fuss attitude.

Even silent film star Buster Keaton shows up in another attempt at dark comedy — we see him standing ramrod straight before the camera, when suddenly a barn collapses on him. Is it necessary? Perhaps not, but some comedic relief never hurts with such unrelenting subject matter. And the importance of facing one’s mortality with an honest, even at moments a lighthearted touch is more than enough reason to see this documentary.

Reflecting on the making of the film, Pincus harked back to his brush with Aikido swordsmanship. “When you’ve trained a long time, your mind disappears. There’s something dissociative and it gets in your body. I have lost a lot of that because of my illness, but there’s still the notion of extension, of having all your meaning in your movements.” With One Cut, One Life, Pincus and Small have given us a farewell documentary full of meaning. By way of extension, it’s a legacy of life well-lived — l’chaim.

Rating: A-

One Cut, One Life – Theatrical Trailer from Lucia Small on Vimeo.

For more information about the film “One Cut, One Life,” please visit the official Web site by clicking here. If you wish to learn about current and future screenings, you can visit the First Run Features Web site.