David Holzman’s Diary

By Nancy Harrison

david-holzmans-diary-jim-mcbride-1.jpgDavid Holzman's Diary, 1967

The distance between truth and film are exposed in the re-release of the world's first 'mockumentary'

“This is not turning out the way I thought it was…I thought this would be a film about things, about…the mystery…of things…I thought that I’d get this stuff on celluloid, you know, and I could…control it…I could run it back and forth, I could rearrange it, until I could see what it meant – my life on film. And I could understand…I could see what was going on…what the ongoing thing was – I could make a connection. That’s not what’s happened…” – David Holzman, July 21st, 1967

In summer 1967, film-making obsessed New Yorker David Holzman sets out on an attempt to make sense of his world by using his proudest possession – his 16mm Éclair camera – to document his life. On the morning of July 14th, one day after he became eligible for the Vietnam draft and lost his job, he begins to make a film diary in the hope that hero Jean-Luc Godard’s pronouncement that “film is truth at 24 frames per second” will provide the answers he seeks. With his life slipping out of his grasp, David hopes his film will ‘bring life into focus’. But filming his life simultaneously destroys it, completely taking over his life and in just over a week he is alienated, confused, alone and close to the edge…

Not in fact a documentary, but one of the first examples of a ‘mockumentary’, David Holzman’s Diary is a reflection of a period when film was overlapping with reality, and the lines between documentary and fiction were blurring. The Direct Cinema and Free Cinema movements, together with ‘staged’ documentary-like films – Peter WatkinsCulloden (1964) and The War Game (1965), and Medium Cool (1969), documentary-maker Haskell Wexler’s fiction film, shot amidst (and incorporating scenes of) the riots at the 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago – were creating a new type of ‘reality’ on film. What makes David Holzman’s Diary stand out is the clever, darkly humorous approach, slyly mocking the pretensions and seriousness of Direct and Free Cinema, and in doing so pointing to the inescapable fact that ‘reality’ is pretty well impossible in front of a camera.

The film is fascinating as a snapshot of life at the cusp of a new era – all too soon to arrive in the form of the political and social upheavals of 1968. Interspersed with his daily diary sequences, shot in his bedsit, David roams through an often strangely deserted New York city, cataloguing his environment and inadvertently capturing details of the period such as radio news reports on Vietnam and the Israeli-Egyptian war, and a brilliant visual collage of images made up of all the television programmes from a single evening. Displaying the 60s’ enthusiasm for technology, he lovingly introduces his ‘friends’ – his Éclair camera, his Nagra and his Lavalier mic – and incorporates both slow motion and a brilliant fish-eye lens sequence. But not everything is inadvertent or accidental. The apparent roughness of the film – extended silent sequences, uneven sound, occasional shakiness – are all ways of further drawing us into the story and making the premise of the diary all the more believable. Although shot for a mere $2500, director Jim McBride was in fact an experienced news cameraman, and the film’s cameraman, Michael Wadleigh, went on to shoot Woodstock (1970) among others.

david-holzmans-diary-jim-mcbride-2.jpgDavid Holzman's Diary, 1967

In the central role, David (L M Kit Carson) is brilliantly believable – at times bullying, dull, irritating and pathetic – but most of all self-obsessed. He seems unable to relate to life outside of films, and is unshakeable in his belief in the truth-telling properties of celluloid. Although David is devoted to film, it becomes apparent that he has nothing in his life worthy of filming – and by capturing his life through the camera, he begins to see how banal his existence really is. His ‘life as film’ pretensions are shown up in one particular scene when David’s story of his break-up with his girlfriend is criticised by his best friend Pepe as being “like a bad movie”. Slowly we are led to see that he is using the camera as an analyst – within a week of commencing his diary he is filmed both shouting at his camera (“you made me do things…you don’t show me the right things…what do you want from me??…why don’t you help me??…”) and later apologising to it.

For David much of the lure of film – and filming – is contained in the watching. Using the excuse of the camera, he presents a catalogue of voyeurism, with a particular emphasis on an examination of women. He incessantly films his beautiful girlfriend Penny, who although she is a model, hates his intrusive filming and is ultimately driven away by it when he secretly films her naked in bed. Undeterred, he subsequently films himself making phone calls to her. He repeatedly films his neighbour across the road, a woman whom he has never met but nonetheless has absurdly constructed an entire identity, based on a Visconti film, as ‘Sandra’, and whom he believes he ‘understands’ through his analysis of a small gesture she makes when she puts her rubbish in the bin. He films women in the underground and follows them on the street, eventually being shouted at to ‘get lost’.

As his life further spirals out of control, and fate delivers the final blow to his filmic experiment, David is ultimately none the wiser. Despite his desire to capture and control the truth with his celluloid analysis, he ultimately sees little of reality.

Although little seen at the time of its release, the film has been influential beyond its limited screenings, and its importance was recognised in 1991 when it was chosen for preservation by the US National Film Registry. Truly unique, its re-released this year by Second Run also includes a follow-on ‘real’ documentary, My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1968), the story of McBride’s girlfriend’s wedding to another man, as well as a recent interview with the director.

Nancy Harrison is a freelance writer and film producer specialising in documentary.