“In Truth or Dare, there is a moment when Warren Beatty upbraids Madonna: ‘She doesn’t want to live off-camera,’ he says to the camera, and turns to her. ‘Why would you say something,’ he asks, ‘if it’s off-camera? Tomorrow, if they’re not here, what’s the point of existing?’ Beatty had said it. Would she give of herself unless it could be recorded?” – Norman Mailer, “Madonna,” 1994
“You don’t show me the right things; you don’t show me anything that means anything.” – David Holzman, speaking to his camera, in David Holzman’s Diary, 1967
There was a push in world cinema during the late 1950s and throughout the 60s to emphasize the stuff of everyday life. Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité tried to re-negotiate the relationship between subject and filmmaker, with films from both camps usually increasing the time spent on character’s humdrum goings about. Many films associated with the French New Wave tended to either a) focus on the quotidian (as in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) or Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)) or b) let genre conventions brush up against and offset a disarming commonplaceness, often giving the sense of average schmos imprisoned in movies beyond their control (as in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) or many of the early films of Jean-Luc Godard).
In the same era, Andy Warhol was helming epic long shots, creating a sense of “solid time,” and focusing his camera on unspeakably mundane activities; just the titles of films like Sleep (1963), Eat (1964), and Kitchen (1965) speak volumes. Other American artists, like Warhol associate Jonas Mekas, were creating “diary films,” turning the vagaries of bohemian existence into fodder for blitzkrieg montages and poetic digressions.
These projects had varying aims, but they undeniably arose from the same zeitgeist. As early as 1936, Walter Benjamin had written, “the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced,” and it could be said that many filmmakers during this era were trying, in some manner, to right that wrong. As a matter of fact, so were many capitalists. The move toward dailiness in cinema was made possible by camera manufacturers putting out smaller, more mobile, cheaper equipment. It’s worth pondering these changes today, when, in the West, it would be less apropos to speak of “modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced” than to talk about a desperate, spiritual craving for the same.
Jim McBride’s film David Holzman’s Diary (1967) could be said to sit at the intersection of the cinephilic experiments of the late-50s and 60s and the world of YouTube and user-generated content; viewed now, it seems to capture many elements submerged in the former and show how they adumbrate elements of the latter. DHD has two major arguments:
(1) The desire to document yourself can become a pathology, or may begin as one. The saddest sequences in DHD are when Holzman tries to reconnect with his girlfriend; he wants to make amends for invading her privacy, but he just can’t stop himself from recording their telephone conversations.
(2) You will find out little about yourself, or little of value, from simply carrying a camera around and talking into it; as a result, you will find out little that other people want to know.
Both arguments seem relevant to contemporary culture; both arguments are, in a way, things the culture has been working through in the past decade. To elaborate on argument (2): The film suggests that we are generally bad at discerning and cultivating what’s interesting about us. Perhaps when we have a good feedback system, like a sharp conversational partner or a good editor or simply a good book with which we have an imaginary conversation, we do better; we respond and adapt. Staring into the blank face of technology, however, we’re lost.
Further, we can’t help performing when a camera’s around, but because most of us are bad performers—and almost all of us would be bad performers if we had to be performing all the time—this mostly involves censoring ourselves, trying not to say stupid things. This is why Holzman often appears to be at a loss for words and why so many video blogs mostly consist of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and people talking about how they can’t think of anything to say. This helps explain why most of the really popular video blogs have turned out to be fake. Even when not total hoaxes, they tend to be carefully scripted and staged (Ze Frank, who ran one of the most interesting man-talking-to-a-camera series, said he would spend upwards of 6 hours on every 5 minute episode). This also lends context to the fact that reality TV, which purports to transmit everyday life, is a) obviously artificial and b) even so, concerned solely with the wealthy, the famous, or the mentally unbalanced (a mix incubated in Warhol’s Factory): people the culture deems inherently fascinating.
All of this probably also explains why video blogs done in a confessional mode have not proved, over the past few years, very sustainable or at all popular; many people in the early days of YouTube recreated the narrative arc of DHD, getting overzealous and burning out quickly. The most popular YouTube channels currently consist not of diaristic logorrhea but of vernacularized pop culture entertainment: lo-tech sketch comedy is popular; so is political satire.
On the one hand, it seems like people realized that there was only a small audience for really gritty personal stuff; on the other, sites like Facebook and Twitter have channeled many of the desires that originally caused people to start blogs and vlogs. Social media sites have colonized a lot of the Internet by sharpening the mechanics of extra-personal communication. They let users have the feeling that their speech is moving from one point out to many, but limit the audience to a well-defined, self-selecting group. This has the effect of offering greater assurance that there will be an actual audience (so many blogs go unread; fewer Facebook posts do) and of letting users feel that they aren’t acting out a fame fantasy (which they are, just in miniature). Either practically or with an iron fist, these sites limit the amount of space people have to go on about themselves, restricting both their ability to be boring and the onus put on them to be interesting.
Another reason for the ascension of Facebook and Twitter is that they create excellent feedback systems—reposting, retweeting, liking, etc.—that can give people things to which they can respond and adapt. Facebook has been particularly ingenious at providing these systems, which goes a long way toward explaining its massive popularity. In addition, Facebook’s News Feed has allowed people to sustain a tricky psychological fiction: the News Feed algorithm curates—somehow really well—other people’s posts for you, but Facebook, of course, does not tell you to whose News Feed your posts have been added. Users are able to feel that everything they post is being looked at, while mysterious mathematics assure they will only have to see things that are potentially interesting to them. Facebookers are, once again, able to feel like they’ve realized one of the dreams lurking behind the desire to be famous: that of being recognized without having to recognize.
Which brings us back to David Holzman and to the question of why he undertook his project in the first place. One answer suggested by the film is that he wanted to displace the chore of self-reflection, leaving it up to the camera to reveal him to himself. But what his camera ends up revealing is the paucity of the self he’s left with after his project’s through. “You don’t show me anything that means anything,” Holzman screams, but that doesn’t mean the camera’s lying.
Tom McCormack is a film and media critic whose writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Rhizome, The Chicago Reader, The L Magazine, and Moving Image Source.