Ed Pincus, a key figure in fostering the Cambridge nonfiction film community in the 1970s, whose highly personal 1980 film “Diaries (1971-1976)’’ is a landmark American documentary, died Nov. 5 in his Roxbury, Vt., home. He was 75. The cause of death was leukemia, his wife, Jane, said.
Mr. Pincus’s intimate, unmediated approach to documentary “was a huge influence on me and dozens of other filmmakers, both in this country and abroad,’’ said Ross McElwee
by phone Tuesday. McElwee, the director of “Sherman’s March’’ and other documentaries, was a friend of Mr. Pincus’s and studied with him at MIT.
The Ed Pincus Collection
is part of the Harvard Film Archive. Mr. Pincus taught film at Harvard in the 1970s. On its website, the archive describes him as “one of the most crucial figures in the history of American documentary filmmaking.’’
Mr. Pincus’s career trajectory was as distinctive as his films. Having become a self-taught filmmaker in the early 1960s, and a self-taught film teacher late in that decade, he became a self-taught farmer in the early ’80s.
“I can remember talking to a florist in Harvard Square who said Ed had an impact on the flower industry, his flowers were so good,’’ said Steve Ascher in a phone interview. Ascher, a Newton-based filmmaker, collaborated with Mr. Pincus on the 1977 film “Life and Other Anxieties,’’ and on an influential how-to guide, “The Filmmaker’s Handbook.’’ Third Branch Flower LLC
specializes in peonies, berries, and snowball viburnum.
In a final flourish of unpredictability, Mr. Pincus resumed filmmaking, collaborating with Lucia Small on the 2007 documentary “The Axe in the Attic,’’ about the human impact of Hurricane Katrina. Small is editing another collaboration, “One Cut, One Life,’’ about the death of two of Small’s friends and Mr. Pincus’s illness. “I called him the grandfather of first-person film,’’ she said.
“ ‘Lucia,’ he’d tell me, ‘I’m the father, not the grandfather!’ ’’
Mr. Pincus’s first two documentaries, both made with David Neuman, are examples of the ostensibly styleless style known as cinéma vérité. The filmmaker cannot be seen, giving an impression of life being recorded directly. “Black Natchez’’ (1967) looks at the civil rights movements in Mississippi. “One Step Away’’ (1968) is about post-Summer of Love hippie life in San Francisco.
With the ’70s, Mr. Pincus’s interests followed the political evolution of the time. “Ed, under the influence of both feminism and the civil rights movement, decided to take seriously that the personal was political,’’ said Scott MacDonald
. A visiting professor of art history at Hamilton College, he wrote “American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn,’’ with a chapter on Mr. Pincus.
Mr. Pincus turned his camera on himself and his wife, a coauthor of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,’’ the landmark book on women’s health. The couple had agreed to an open marriage. Mr. Pincus spent five years documenting their relationship, accumulating 33 hours of footage. He set it aside, then edited it to 3½ hours.
“I remember seeing the film,’’MacDonald said, “and it scared the life out of me. Yeah, open marriage sounded like fun, but to be completely honest with your partner? He was the kind of guy, when his brain led him to a conclusion to try something, he tried it. And he did it without embarrassment or hesitation or thinking of what it might mean for his safety or even sanity. His manner, his willingness to be unafraid, had a very great impact on other filmmakers.’’
“When I first saw Diaries,’’ Jane Pincus said Tuesday, “it was at [Harvard]. I’d seen fragments, of course. I thought it was an amazingly wonderful film. Over the years I’ve seen it over and over, and it always seemed to me a very complicated film. What it is is pieces of our life that are put together, and there are resonances between the different parts. It’s in a way a comedy, from one point of view. It’s all about people wanting ‘space,’ a big word in those days.’’
“It wasn’t very difficult in the ’60s and ’70s to film stuff as though the camera wasn’t there,’’ Mr. Pincus said in a 2007 Globe interview. “People would get bored with it and go about their daily lives. I think that’s not so easy anymore.’’
Edward Ralph Pincus was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, Julius, was employed in the textile business, and his mother, Anne, worked for him.
Mr. Pincus majored in philosophy at Brown University, then received a master’s in the subject at Harvard, where he also studied photography. He married Jane Kates in 1960.
In 1969, Mr. Pincus published a “Guide to Filmmaking,’’ which became a bible for independent filmmakers.
Mr. Pincus began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967. With Richard Leacock, a legendary figure in cinéma vérité, he founded the MIT Film Section.
“Both exciting and fun’’ was how McElwee described studying with Mr. Pincus. “He had a wonderful, sardonic sense of humor. It wasn’t mean-spirited, but it took an ironic view of life, and that’s in his films.’’
Mr. Pincus moved to Vermont largely because of threats from a mentally unbalanced man, Dennis Sweeney, who had been involved in the making of “Black Natchez.’’ How serious those threats were became apparent when Sweeney shot to death former US representative Allard Lowenstein in 1980.
Living in Vermont agreed with Mr. Pincus. “I got used to lying low,’’ he said in 2007.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Pincus leaves a daughter, Ruth, of Burlington, Vt.; a son, Benjamin, of Underhill Center, Vt.; a brother, Martin, of Manhattan; and three grandsons. A celebration of his life is planned for July 13, in Roxbury, Vt.