For Good or Ill, by Dayne Linford
It’s always difficult to review a film that clearly comes from deeply personal experience on the part of the filmmaker. Pincus, written and directed by David Fenster, is such a film, a complex, powerful, approaching successful rumination on life, death, and one’s place in the world. As Fenster tells it, the story of Pincus comes from the combination of his own personal search for some kind of spiritual truth, and his father’s 13 year struggle with Parkinson’s.
Pincus Finster, played by David Nordstrom, a clear cipher for the director, is attempting to keep his life in balance, running his father’s slowly failing remodeling business, acting as primary caretaker of his father, played by the director’s own father, Paul Fenster, as he struggles with Parkinson’s, and attempting to secure some kind of solace and stability from a vague approximation of spiritual beliefs. The characterization of Pincus himself, especially as a cipher for Fenster, is one of the great strengths of the film, particularly because Fenster is unafraid to show Pincus in his naked, ugly humanity. Aimless, frustrated, despairing, Pincus continually fails those around him, driving the once successful remodeling business into the ground by allowing his friend and employee, an illegal German immigrant named Dietmar, played by Dietmar Franosch, to drink and sleep on site instead of working, using his father’s illness to justify his behavior. The incredible stress brought on by the Parkinson’s has caused Pincus to retreat into himself and act towards the world in an increasingly self-centered way, even as he sacrifices much for his father. Though other characters lack this dynamism, both Pincus and his father are exceptionally well-crafted and acted, carrying the film through some rough moments with the power and honesty of their portrayal.
In terms of pure craft, the film is quite beautiful, relying on locations throughout Miami and their natural beauty. It further relies extensively on the documentary style filmmaking that’s popular these days, which brings out one of the central problems of the film. Clearly, the filmmaker, having the actors mostly play themselves, with the exception of Nordstrom, has little to no script and seeks instead to meld snippets of conversation into a “script” of the film. This makes a certain kind of sense, especially as much of the impetus for the film was documentary footage Fenster had taken of his father previous to the creation of Pincus. It creates a serious problem, though, in that the film tends to ramble, particularly as Pincus, in his search for spiritual truths, visits psychics, healers of various kinds, acupuncturists, etc. While very interesting in terms of his desperation to heal his father, and his own fumbling attempts at spiritual security, these scenes occupy an undue amount of time and, if you’ll permit my personal leanings, a lot of needless pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. I have no problem with the fact of his interaction with any of these healers and spiritualists, I actually find it quite compelling in terms of his agenda and his bottomless need, but dialogue in this film in general rambles and wanders, clearly coming straight from the actors as they’re filmed instead of scripted. Conversation can be wonderful, when you’re in it. Listening to people ramble for 83 minutes does get tiring. Especially as there are clear moments of scripting, which are often the best and most powerful parts of the film, like a scene where a conversation between Pincus and his father is played out against them spending time together in parks and rivers outside of Miami. I wish Fenster had kept the documentary footage as inspiration for a tightly scripted film, or just done a documentary. The combination of aesthetics mostly makes the film disingenuous and uneven, with parts achieving an incredible poetry and other parts being totally mind-numbing, one bumping into the next clumsily and noticeably. It’s disappointing, to see an emotion hit so well, only to be compromised by the director’s insistence on using what seem to be indie clichés.
It’s a testament to the power of the emotional impact of Nordstrom and Fenster’s performances, and the other Fenster’s direction, that this perennial problem does not destroy the film – in fact, much is achieved despite it. Pincus is admirable in that it hits an incredibly delicate and specific emotion just right, creating an understanding on the part of the audience for the characters and their decisions, the absolute difficulty brought with something like Parkinson’s. As a mood piece, then, it largely succeeds, but the key difficulty of the film is the desire to express something that has no real end, no arc to it. Were this a shorter film, just hitting an emotion, especially this well, would be fine, but this is a full-length narrative film, and we expect a certain amount of plotting, at least in terms of some development of character, something, even a small thing, we can identify as being different from the beginning of the film because of the journey taken by that or those characters in the film. This lack of arc is particularly difficult given the amount of time wasted listening to psychics explain “how it works”, to mention one particularly mind numbing sequence that should’ve been much more interesting considering the stakes of it. As Pincus ends, we are left feeling rather empty-handed, and not in an artful way, not as an expression of the essential emptiness of life, which is what the ending appears to be going for. No, the empty-handedness we feel is more of a “Huh. I guess that’s the ending, then. Ok.” For those of you who have seen the film, I do recognize the philosophical point of the ending, I just don’t care. Were this an experimental film about philosophy, a philosophic ending makes sense. This is a film about characters struggling with basic human issues, and I feel we’re entitled to a basic human ending, something about the characters we’ve spent so much time with.
In the end, Pincus is successful and not successful in about equal portions. Strongly emotional, well-acted and crafted, this is not a film that should feel and end as shrug-worthy as it does. The work, the emotion, the heart of it deserves the honesty it takes to face it straight on and not hide behind philosophy, vague attempts at symbolism, or muttering accounts of “spiritualism”. At its best, Pincus is a striking character portrait of a man afflicted with Parkinson’s, and the son who takes care of him. At its worst, Pincus is a meandering attempt to ask big questions attached to actual suffering that makes the senseless shuffling for “something more” expressed by almost all the characters feel pathetic and childish. It’s unfortunate that a film with such strong elements should be so compromised.