Zeitgeist, Wikipedia informs us (German pronunciation: ‘tsaɪtgaɪst] ), is “the spirit of the times” or “the spirit of the age. . . the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual and/ or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiance. morals socio-cultural direction, and mood associated with an era.”
That’s quite a mouthful, but it’s the best way to describe Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. Especially if you happened to be “closer than that” (as Edward G. Robinson says to Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity) at the time of its making. That time was 1967, and the place was 71st street on the west side of New York. That’s where the film was shot and the world it not so much represents as virtually embodies existed. I know because I was there.
I wasn’t present during the actual shooting, but aside from the pre-op transsexual the hero chats with in one memorable street scene, I knew everyone in front of and behind the camera, all the locations (the apartment in which the bulk of the action was filmed belonged to my friend Lorenzo Mans, who plays David’s friend) and all the references. It was all part and parcel of the lives of an entire generation of cineastes whose aesthetic was in every way, shape and form Godardian. Godard’s maxim that “The cinema is truth 24 times a second,” is repeated as holy writ by the film’s titular hero, played by actor and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson as if there were no distance between the character and himself, and his every word was an inspired improvisation.
Truth be told, there was a lot of improvisation. But a lot was scripted too. The effect being sought — and found — was the impression of “the real.” For what we’re looking at is the cinematic recapitulation of several select days in the life of a young filmmaker. Equipped with a 16mm camera and mic, he can do everything himself, in a way that we thought was as far as the cinema could go back then. And as that camera and mic were being handled under the supervision of Michael Wadleigh (just three years away from his achieving cinematic glory with the ultimate music documentary Woodstock) the results are as spectacular as the modern French classics on which the film was modeled (Chronicle of a Summer, Adieu Phillipine, Paris Belongs To Us). Today’s David Holzman would of course have a video camera, and do many of the same things. But perhaps not in the same spirit.
The presiding mentor is Jean-Luc Godard, whose film Masculine Feminine, released just the year before, had impressed us all greatly. It more than spoke to our generation. It was as if Godard had somehow opened up our brain cavities and aimed his camera inside to record our every fantasy. Jean-Pierre Leaud played a filmmaker in that effortlessly great work that captured both the anxiety of the generation that had Vietnam looming over its head, but also its dreamy romanticism.
David Holzman more than identifies with Godard. He wants to be him. And so his girlfriend Penny (Ellen Dietz) must be his Anna Karina. It’s a role she doesn’t cotton to. In fact his insistence that he film her every move quickly leads to the end of their affair. His friend Pepe (Mans) wisely councils David that he’s going too far. But the dye has been cast and there’s no turning back. So Penny-less, the film and its “maker” forge ahead until it hits an unexpected wall — our hero is robbed and his camera stolen. What we see on screen at this point are photo-machine self-portraits of David in despair as a soundtrack plays a tape of his recounting of what’s just happened. The junkie has had his junk taken away and he’s going to have to go cold turkey. Will he survive? Probably. “Sadder but wiser” is the term. A chastened David will doubtless rise again.
As for David Holzman’s Diary, it’s existed for 44 years in a kind of limbo. Never given a proper “release,” it’s played festivals and art houses and was released by Criterion as a laserdisc. McBride went on to make all manner of movies: everything from a David Holzman-esque documentary My Girlfriend’s Wedding, to a bizarre dystopian fantasy (Glenn and Randa) a rock and roll musical biopic (Great Balls of Fire) — even a remake of the God Godard’s first masterpiece Breathless (transposed to L.A. with Richard Gere in the Jean-Paul Belmondo role and a French actress named Valeire Kaprisky as Jean Seberg.) Throughout his wild cinematic ride, David Holzman’s Diary remains. Even if they never walked West 71st Street back when all David had was a camera and a dream, those who know it and love it know and love the cinema in a very special way.
David Ehrenstein was born in 1947 and commenced his career as a writer in 1965, two years before David Holzman’s Diary was made. His books include Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 and The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. He lives in Los Angeles.