Essential Insights: Brian De Palma and Top Critics on “David Holzman’s Diary”

Why is this man smiling? Perhaps because after 40 years, he and his movie are finally getting their due on the big screen and beyond.

David Holzman’s Diary is a landmark film, the first “mockumentary” of American cinema and a precursor to two of the most dominant strains of contemporary media culture: reality television and online video blogs. Directed by Jim McBride and starring L.M. Kit Carson, the film was one of the first 100 titles selected for preservation by the Library of Congress National Film Registry. And yet, David Holzman’s Diary has mostly existed as inside knowledge among filmmakers and cinephiles – indie director Lena Dunham once wondered if it was “every filmmaker’s secret influence.”

We are proud to announce that Fandor has partnered with Kino Lorber to make David Holzman’s Diary available on Fandor starting Wednesday, June 15, coinciding with the film’s first-ever weeklong theatrical run at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it was first screened at a one-off event back in 1968. It will also be screening the same day at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco, with director Jim McBride in person.

In celebration of David Holzman’s Diary’s special release in theaters and on Fandor, Keyframe is devoting this week and next to the film, with filmmaker testimonials, interviews with cast and crew, a special poll and a video essay. Check back daily to learn more about one of the most influential films you may have never heard of. In the meantime, here are some essential insights on the film that we have gleaned, starting with how one famous director was impacted by the film in his student days:

Hi Mom

“When I got my first 8mm sound camera I’d carry it around like David Holzman and try to film everything I did… I filmed a whole section of my life – people I was going out with, my friends. I just shot everything. I directed the scenes, too. And it all came from David Holzman’s Diary.”

Brian De Palma, quoted in Sight and Sound

It seems reasonable to claim that America’s independent cinema has its roots in two masterpieces made almost a decade apart: John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) and Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. These were not the first US indie films, nor were they the only distinguished ones made during this period. But in terms of their impact on what followed, they tower over everything else… Cassavetes is today regarded as the spiritual godfather of independent directors, yet David Holzman’s Diary has arguably been even more influential… The film’s influence is most obvious in a string of mock documentaries that range from This Is Spinal Tap to The Blair Witch Project.

Brad Stevens, Sight and Sound

Jim McBride’s ingenious puzzle movie presents itself as a cinema verite document—the attempt of a young filmmaker (L.M. Kit Carson) to put his life in order by recording it on celluloid (1967). The simulation is seamless (it’s much more convincing than Woody Allen’s Zelig), which produces some wonderful paradoxes—as when one of David’s friends (Lorenzo Mans) criticizes the footage of his violent breakup with his girlfriend for looking like “a bad movie.” Where most independent productions are founded on self-righteous claims of truth and honesty, McBride’s film wittily observes that Hollywood has no corner on illusionism. Even the black-and-white, hand-held cinema still lies 24 times a second.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

“My life…my life…my life…my life, though ordinary enough, seems to haunt me in uncommon ways,” David (played by writer L.M. Kit Carson, a longtime McBride collaborator and also a pivotal force behind Wenders’ Paris, Texas) tells the camera. The camera and the tape recorder, rather. David is meticulous in detailing his equipment for us—his Éclair 16mm camera, his Nagra tape recorder (God, those were beautiful machines!), lavalier microphone, and so on. A bit of a cinephile, David cites the “great French wit” Jean-Luc Godard’s axiom that cinema is truth 24 times a second. With his filmmaking rig, he will find the truth. McBride doesn’t tell this story objectively, but rather frames it as the real thing—we only see what David films, hear what he records.

David’s plan goes awry almost immediately, as his girlfriend—a fashion model, as it happens—balks at his proposition to film her without makeup or preparation. “I don’t see how I can shoot a picture of my life without Penny in it,” David muses, rather drippily. He will soon have to find out. A friend subsequently criticizes David’s project—”I don’t like your script.” The act of filming “life” only tends to alienate David from life. He exists in a world very different from the one we live in now—a world where filming something was considered an event in itself. David is reduced to improvising street interviews—the one with the transexual driving a T-Bird is a doozy—and filming things that don’t talk back, such as the television, and, more disturbingly, the woman in the window across the street from his apartment.

Glenn Kenny, The MUBI Notebook

David Holzman's Diary

It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary the combination of location shooting, available light photography and a handheld camera might once have seemed, but during the 60s the exciting possibilities of an improvisatory narrative structure which promised to capture events as they unfolded were just being explored. The cameras of Rickey Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, Andy Warhol, Andrew Noren and the Maysles Brothers established a new relationship with their subjects: intimate, revelatory and personal, countering a documentary tradition in which human beings were primarily used to illustrate various social themes. And the very name cinema verite announced that these films had attained the goal of philosophic inquiry: truth. British theorists preferred the term Direct Cinema, implying that it was unmediated, unauthored, Real Life Transmitted Straight To You.

Of course, however, it was neither Direct nor True, and these illusions are comically and poignantly exploited in David Holzman’s Diary. Booed at the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival when the end credits revealed it to be fiction, McBride’s film illustrates the perils of a too-literal belief in the power of documentary. David Holzman’s Diary is the first-person account of a newly unemployed and suddenly very draft-eligible young man, who feels life slipping out of his grasp. Filming himself, he believes, will help him to figure it all out. The ability to project images on a screen, to see them over and over, to edit them together—in short the very medium of film—will reveal the Truth behind the random events of his existence. But filming only causes things to become more muddled: his girlfriend leaves him, a friend criticizes him, he begins to do things in order to have material to film. Ultimately his equipment is stolen, leaving him despondent and unenlightened. It is a simple and inexorably logical descent, explicitly dramatizing what film critic Andrew Sarris called the application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to documentary filmmaking: the inevitable effect of the presence of an observer on the behavior of the observed.

Jaime Wolf, The Criterion Current

David Holzmans Diary

The role of the camera – and technology in general – is critical to the idea of truth telling in both films, each emphasizes and anthropomorphizes technology in different ways.   In David Holzman’s Diary, David almost fetishizes his camera, his first love, which he introduces before even his girlfriend, calling it “my friend… my eyes” (by contrast, he introduces his girlfriend as “vain, dirty and sloppy.”)  In this one line, he defines his camera as both a discrete character and an extension of himself.   Throughout the film, the camera continues to act as a “character,” one that watches, pries and intrudes.  By the end of the film, David has lost the differentiation between technology and humanity altogether as he shouts at his camera, “YOU made me do things,” and “YOU haven’t told me anything!”   Despite his reliance on the camera to reveal the truth about his life, it only ends up getting in the way.   David’s girlfriend Penny is extremely uncomfortable on film, despite David’s admonishments to “ignore the camera.”  As a result, in this case the camera has actually disrupted the telling of truth, as we never get a “true” picture of Penny at all.  Finally, in his exploitation of the movie camera as his “eyes,” David reveals an often-disturbing voyeurism.  He secretly films the girl across the street through her window, records Penny as she sleeps naked on his bed (a reference to Warhol’s 1963 film, Sleep?) and in one scene “the camera” follows a strange woman out of the subway until she turns around and tells him to “beat it.”   The truths revealed in this way are not the ones David intends, but disturbing truths about himself and about the nature of filmmaking.

Tom Tenney, American Independent Cinema

It’s important not to forget the genuine filmmakers, primarily director Jim McBride. Had he not executed the perfect mockery – and he most assuredly has – then the entire enterprise would simply fall apart around him. Yet everything, from Carson’s increasingly nervy performance to the various dramatic deviced, all work perfectly and never once seem out of place. Had David Holzman’s Diary been a genuine documentary then no doubt we’d be faced with a searing, but truly impressive, character portrait. The fact that McBride has been able to conjure this all up from thin air, only makes it doubly so.

Anthony Nield, The Digital Fix

David Holzman's Diary

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