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Essential Artifacts: Jonathan Rosenbaum on “David Holzman’s Diary”

Three objects of a single film that reflect on the past in a present tense.

David Holzmans Diary

Note: The following passages are excerpted from the essay “David Holzman’s Diary / My Girlfriend’s Wedding: Historical Artifacts of the Past and Present,” written by Jonathan Rosenbaum for the DVD booklet of the UK region release by Second Run DVD of David Holzman’s Diary and My Girlfriend’s Wedding, both directed by Jim McBride. The article can be read in its entirety on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s website as well as in his recent book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition.

In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one. —Abbas Kiarostami

Artifact #1: A softcover book, The Film Director as Superstar (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,1970)—-a collection of 16 interviews in three parts, each of which has two subsections: “The Outsiders” (”Beyond the Underground,” “Their Own Money, Their Own Scene”), “The European Experience” (”The Underemployed Independent,” “The Socialist Film Schools”), and “Free Agents Within the System” (”Transitional Directors,” “Independents with Muscle”).

Offering a good sense of what was seen as edgy filmmaking 35 years ago, Gelmis singled out Arthur Penn, Richard Lester, Mike Nichols, and Stanley Kubrick as his muscular independents and Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola as his transitional figures. Milos Forman and Roman Polanski were his two graduates of the socialist film schools, Lindsay Anderson and Bernardo Bertolucci his two underemployed independents.

The three with their own money were Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes (the latter was seen on the book’s cover, camera in hand). And the three who were beyond the underground? Jim McBride, Brian DePalma, and Robert Downey. All three eventually wound up in Hollywood—-like virtually everyone else in Gelmis’s lineup, apart from Mailer and Warhol—- though it seems sadly emblematic that Downey is best known today for his actor son with the same name while McBride in probably best known for his 1983 U.S. remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

One reason for citing all these strange bedfellows now is to convey some sense of where McBride stood at the time, on the basis of the two legendary films, his first two, included on this DVD–neither of which has ever had a normal theatrical distribution anywhere, apart from a limited release of David Holzman’s Diary in Paris. Yet in spite of this limited exposure, the interview with McBride is not only the first in Gelmis’s book, but one of the most substantial.

In a way, this shouldn’t be too surprising, because when we speak about the impact of influential works in art cinema, whether it’s Citizen Kane or the original Breathless, we’re speaking more about the quality of the response than about the quantity of respondents. However personal some of its origins might be, David Holzman’s Diary is in fact a great work of synthesis summarizing the very notions of the film director as subject (and therefore as superstar) and the camera as tool of self-scrutiny that the 60s film explosion inspired. And its ambiguities about the various crossovers between documentary and fiction remain as up to date as the films of Kiarostami.

Artifact #2: Another softcover book from the same year, David Holzman’s Diary: A Screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson from a Film by Jim McBride (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970). This is an even more flagrant case of relatively unseen “underground” work being heralded by a mainstream publisher. The title’s a bit confusing, because in fact the film was made without a screenplay and Carson is crediting himself with an after-the-fact transcription and description. Its dialogue was basically written (when it was written) on a scene by scene basis, by McBride working with either Carson, the lead actor playing David Holzman, or Lorenzo Mans aka Pepe, in the latter’s own extended dialogue. (Shot in front of Mans’ own Cuban mural, this is in many ways the most provocative scene in the film, as well as the funniest. Given that Mans’ own apartment at the time was serving as David Holzman’s, his influence and impact on the film probably shouldn’t be restricted to this sequence; he later served as the main screenwriter on McBride’s first relatively big-budget feature, the 1971 Glen and Randa.) But the frank sexual talk from the lady in the Thunderbird–actually a transsexual who’d recently undergone a sex-change operation-—was 100% impromptu, including the offscreen questions and comments from David, who at this point was being impersonated by the film’s cameraman, Michael Wadley. (Incidentally, during the same year that artifacts #1 and 2 were published, Wadley–who also shot Martin Scorsese’s first feature the same year asDavid Holzman, and My Girlfriend’s Wedding two years later—-released his own first film,Woodstock, now spelling his surname Wadleigh.)

Artifact #3: David Holzman’s Diary (the film, 1967). One of the first and best of the great pseudo-documentaries, sometimes known nowadays as mockumentaries—-and certainly one of the cleverest to be made in the 60s after Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965)—-McBride’s first film is still quite capable of fooling unsuspecting viewers almost 40 years later, in part through the effectiveness of Carson’s performance, and despite a contradictory ending which logically should (yet in fact generally doesn’t) give the whole fictional game away, just before the final credits. (The story ends with Holzman losing his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade—-though how these abject substitutes are still conveyed to us on film is left unexplained.)

The film shares an important trait with the early French New Wave features of Godard, François Truffaut, and Jacques Rivette that helped to inspire it by growing out of cinephilia and film criticism. Specifically, it drew part of its stimulus from a never-completed book that McBride and Carson were researching for the Museum of Modern Art about cinéma-vérité by interviewing such figures as Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker, while the more personal and experimental filmmaker Andrew Noren was also providing them with much food for thought. Prior to this, McBride had started a similar film in 1965 with actor Alan Rachins—-who two decades later became a mainstay on the TV show L.A. Law—-that was aborted when the unedited rushes were stolen. So in fact David Holzman grew out of two unfinished projects, and undoubtedly benefited from the many second thoughts that resulted.

Playing with the form of cinéma-vérité while subverting much of the content by making extended portions of it fictional, McBride was emulating the practice of his French models, filming his theory rather than just writing about it. Of course, a good bit of the film isdocumentary, especially when the camera is roaming around Manhattan in the west 70s. And even when the narrative premises and performances are fictional, the film qualifies as documentary in quite another way—by bearing witness to the mood, preoccupations, and lifestyles of its own epoch. In a similar spirit, Rivette once remarked that D.W. Griffith’sIntolerance today has more to say about 1916 than about any of the historical periods it depicts.

But more generally, David Holzman is an extended meditation on the metaphysical underpinnings of cinéma-vérité and other notions of the camera as a probing instrument, especially in relation to voyeurism and other forms of aggressive sexual appropriation as well as self-scrutiny. (Rear Window and Peeping Tom are both repeatedly evoked–along with the sense of duration and the accompanying sense of existential dread found in many of Warhol’s films.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum is a film critic and author of many books, most recently Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition.

David Holzmans Diary

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2 Comments »

  • RJ McHatton says:

    David Holzman’s Diary was very inspirational to me as a young filmmaker. It showed me that I could make a movie with no money but with interesting ideas and interesting people.

  • seank1965 says:

    It had the same effect on me as well. With little money, I ended up making a film that happily dances on the line between fiction and documentary.

    Thanks for the great article.

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