In 1803, Thomas Young performed the first “double-slit” experiment: he found that light, when shot through two narrow slits, registered on the opposite wall not as a series of particles, but as waves. Researchers in the early sixties would try to pinpoint exactly which slit any given particle travelled through – only to find that as long as they measured the proceedings, the light would never yield a wave-like pattern. Watch for the light’s passage and you end up preventing, by the mere fact of your presence, precisely that which you wanted to catch. They dubbed it the observer effect.

In Ed Pincus’ Diaries, we’re the observers, and the effect is in full swing. We might tell ourselves that we’re watching for a portrait of an era, or a record of a life: Diaries is, after all, the result of Pincus’ determined attempt, over the course of five years, to film everything – ostensibly as it happened, in the moment, with no embellishment or affect. We see Pincus, and especially his wife and young children, in all stages of dress and undress, but more importantly in all states of emotional vulnerability, openness, and need. We see moments of reconciliation and glimmers of family happiness, but we also see Pincus climbing into bed with his lover – not to mention his wife repeatedly contesting their open marriage (really, Pincus’ open marriage) with shining eyes and quivering lips. 

Through it all there’s the camera, judging, intruding, refusing to flinch. We know that its very presence is liable to distort, to make that which is filmed depend on and spring from the simple fact that it’s being filmed. Still, those are real tears. We can’t tell how much of the emotional distress onscreen is down to circumstances beyond the camera’s jurisdiction, and how much can be attributed to the presence of that whirring lens. Nor do we know which would be worse: a life made into a performance, or a life exposed in all its openness and real-ness, for our hungry consumption.

Needless to say, Pincus himself doesn’t always come off well here – for every caring gesture or well-spoken word, there’s an act of insensitivity, a curt reply, a betrayal, a dismissal. We have almost to marvel at this man’s willingness to show himself in the least flattering of circumstances, to accuse and even condemn himself just for the sake of keeping the camera rolling – and, at the same time, to open himself up to judgment for keeping the camera rolling. We recoil not only from some of Pincus’ less admirable actions, but from the fact that he’s showing them to us, that he’s willing to deprive himself and his family of their privacy and even, at times, their dignity.

All of which makes us ask: why are we watching Diaries in the first place? For its aesthetic merits? It’s a gorgeous film – suffused with the sort of rich, grainy warmth home movies seem stamped with from birth. But is that enough? Are we also in a sense observing these people as if they were swimming in a historical petri dish, combing their life for signs of the times? Or is there some thrill involved in passing through all the borders separating the lives of others from our own? Maybe we jump at the permission to learn about and especially to see the private lives of strangers. Maybe we crave an excuse to intrude.

Paradoxically, it’s Pincus’ willingness to raise these very doubts that makes Diaries essential viewing. Pincus makes us question our very presence in the theater, makes us squirm simply at the act of watching – and all this without an ounce of didacticism or moral superiority. He’s in it with us, after all, if not deeper. We might judge him – in fact, I suspect we ought to – but we can’t judge him without asking, too, why we feel so comfortable letting the camera guide us into forbidden territory – and, what’s more, whether the camera is capable of guiding us into that territory without deceiving us. In most films, it’s assumed that what’s onscreen is being performed for our sake. Here, for once, we’re not so sure, and in that moment of doubt we might wonder whether our desire for manufactured intrusion stems from something more sinister. All it takes is for a glimmer of reality to poke through all that observation-induced artifice and we find ourselves scampering back to our place, feeling ashamed but also, for better or for worse, alive.

Diaries (1971-1976) screens Saturday at 6:30pm and Sunday at 2:15pm as part of the series Life and Other Anxieties: The Films of Ed Pincus