August 16, 2011

David Holzman's Diary

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): ***1/2

Until I watched Kino’s new DVD special edition of David Holzman's Diary, I was only familiar with its significance as a hatch-mark on a film history timeline. Diary is often cited as one of the earliest mockumentaries, prefiguring (among others) Christopher Guest’s skewering of self-serious musicians, dog show denizens, community theater actors, etc.

In this case, director Jim McBride aims his satirical guns at a particular type of pseudo-intellectual, the eponymous Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson, who co-wrote the film with McBride). Holzman is a recently unemployed cinema obsessive who decides to film himself over the course of a week in July 1967. He cites Godard’s oft-repeated axiom that “film is truth 24 frames per second” as his mantra. As the film unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear that Holzman is a budding sociopath, documenting his own devolution. Holzman makes for insufferable company, both for his (soon to be ex-) girlfriend Penny (Eileen Dietz) and the viewer. 

Holzman makes for insufferable company, both for his (soon to be ex-) girlfriend Penny (Eileen Dietz) and the viewer. He pathologically name-checks cinema luminaries (Pabst, Truffaut, Visconti, etc. ), perhaps out of a desperate need to claim his own relevance in film history. He archly announces that his only real friends are his 16mm, his Nagra field recorder, and his lavalier microphone. In addition to his own rambling monologues, he begins filming his Upper West Side neighbors through their windows, becoming voyeuristically attached to a girl directly across the street from him whom he nicknames “Sandra.”

Holzman’s diary entries are underscored by the faint strains of radio reports detailing the violence in Vietnam, the Israeli-Egytian conflict, and the 1967 Newark riots. The filmmakers focus especially on the latter, rather obviously juxtaposing the rioting of disenfranchised African-Americans with the willful mental illness of a privileged white layabout.

Twenty minutes in, the ouroboros attack as one of Holzman’s friends delivers a monologue heavily aimed at David, questioning the entire purpose/thrust of what we’re watching.

“Your life is not a very good script,” he drolly notes. “You’re not getting truths, just half truths and I think that’s worse than a lie… You stop living. Your decisions stop being moral decisions and start being aesthetical (sic) decisions.”

It’s an obvious corrective to the Godard quote and must have been fresher at the time. In fact, much of Diary is a bit stale. The film is a wonderful time capsule of late ‘60s New York, shot in beautiful high-contrast B&W. I’m sure on some level it deserves 5-star classic status just for its historicity (indeed, it’s been inducted into the National Film Registry). But it’s 75-minute length gives it the feel of an overly long short film.

There are two stand-out moments:

At one point, Holzman decides to distill a few hours of TV into a minute or so, capturing a few frames of every shot he saw that evening: “each shot that went into my head,” Holzman claims. The result is profound: images of phony drama, talk shows, and (above all) advertisement flash by in a disorienting mess of visual overload. The idea of monitoring what we monitor, shot by shot, is something that was probably novel enough to consider then. Do we even think about these things today? Especially when multiple “shots” are entering our vision at a time via the multi-paned deliver of the internet and cable news, etc.?

The other is a brief bit where Holzman’s camera slow-motion circles around Union Square, capturing the faces of hundreds of elderly folks parked there for the afternoon. The muffled strains of a UN vote play over the soundtrack, adding a strange weight to the moment. It’s a brief bit of cinematic exhilaration.

These pieces have resonance beyond their context in the whole and certainly belong in the canon of 1960s avant-garde film. Moments like David pacing in and out of frame mumbling accusations at and demanding answers from the camera, however, feel tired now and fail to resonate beyond functioning as a sort of ur-text for all the self-indulgent Youtube videos out there. Satire or not, real or fake, it’s not an abyss I care to stare at for very long.

“I wish I would have learned something, “ David Holzman says to the camera at the end of his “diary.” “I would have preferred not to have done this, but I did it.” I’m glad he did and I’m glad I finally caught up with the Diary. But now it’s crossed off my list, never to be looked at again.

Extras include two hours of supplemental documentary diaries McBride shot throughout his career thusfar. Recommended viewing includes the eight minute piece I did watch, “My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-In-Law” which is quite charming and refreshingly to-the-point.

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Posted by maian at August 16, 2011 4:16 PM
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