Friday, 4 July 2014

David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

Truth is Beauty 

David Holzman’s Diary is both spoof documentary and satire – and a funny one at that, but doesn’t really feel like either. This is a testament to how well judged the tone of the film is, trading its apparent lack of guile against the more sinister impulses that surface with Holzman’s character. The innocence makes the troubling scenes more uncomfortable, the darker elements colour the more apparently mundane exchanges. It’s also a credit to the acting ability of L.M Kit Carson. To act in front of a camera as if you’re not acting is quite a trick, and he pulls it off, aiding the sensation of his character’s reality going awry.

It was a film concocted by director Jim McBride, cameraman Michael Wadleigh (later the director and cameraman of the film of Woodstock) and L.M Kit Carson, who plays the character of David Holzman. Its purpose, by way of ‘noted French wit’ Jean-Luc Godard, was to explore the idea of ‘filming truth’. In the film, Holzman is taken with the noble folly that by recording a video diary he can somehow reveal ‘the mystery of things’, his life’s hidden patterns and signifance. Well, in a way he does exactly this, but only to prove the adage that you should be careful what you wish for.

The film is also a fascinating time capsule, and when Wadleigh glides the camera through the streets of New York’s Upper West Side, recording its life and people - the delivery boys on bicycles, the people hanging out on their stoops, the sofas and mattresses on the street, a conversation with a street goddess, you sense that the film is in these moments coming near to fulfilling Holzman’s ambition.

One of the reasons Holzman starts filming is because he has received an A1 classification from the draft board. The news that fades in and out of the background soundtrack talks of the times: ‘more than 300 negro and white citizens of Newark have joined in a peace crusade’, ‘Pentagon sources say US forces in Vietnam will be strengthened by at least 80,000 men in the next year’. It is a mood that informs McBride’s accompanying film on the Second Run DVD, My Girlfriend’s Wedding, in which his then girlfriend talks of her reasons behind marrying a Yippie to get a green card. She has travelled to America to join the revolution. He marries just to ‘do something irreverent’.

Truth is conditional on its means of representation

The ‘truth’ revealed in David Holzman’s diary is conditional on the portable recording equipment he uses to capture it, in this case an Eclair MPR 16mm camera (‘she weighs about 18lb’), an Angenieux 9.5-95mm zoom lens, a Nagra tape recorder and a Lavelier microphone. Holzman describes them as ‘all of his friends’. Except they’re not. The camera becomes the dark side of Vertov’s all-seeing Kino-Eye, addictive, craving novelty, sensation and ultimately, humiliation. Television is nothing to it, the small screen provides small fare, hardly even an hors d’oeuvre, and the camera’s appetite can devour a whole evening of tv in a minute. No, what it requires instead is the red meat of prowling and intrusion, the thrill of illicit power, of voyeurism and knowing more about its subject than the subject knows of himself. By the end of the film, after peering into a woman’s life through a window across the street and stalking a woman in the subway (a relentless and profoundly discomforting scene by the by), Holzman is reduced to shouting at the camera ‘what the fuck do you want?’. The camera says nothing of course, just sits there recording, but by now it is a thinking machine, enjoying Holzman’s discomfort while at the same time assuming a rather hurt demeanour. ‘I’m sorry’ says Holzman.

Truth may not necessarily set you free

As Holzman finds out, if you’re going to submit yourself to the impartial and implacable scrutiny of the camera, you better be prepared for what it’s going to show about you. His friend Pepe derides his whole enterprise. In his speech, delivered from crotch height of the painted man in the Cuban-themed mural behind him, he tells him that his decisions have become aesthetical rather than moral, adding that by devoting himself to being recorded on camera he is actually withdrawing from life rather than engaging with it. ‘You’ve stopped living somehow’ he says.

Pitifully dependent on his need to record his life by the end of the film (though it is not mentioned a second time, the spectre of Vietnam provides a motivation for his actions), Holzman has been relieved of his means of doing so. It’s a nicely balanced impasse, though whether he can use the information he has learnt about himself through his project in any meaningful way is a moot point.

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