David Holzman's Diary Review
For a film usually noted more for its comic dimensions – commentators in the past having gleefully picked up on its wry, satirical and sardonic qualities - David Holzman’s Diary is really quite a dark work. The central conceit is that our eponymous “hero” films his day-to-day life as a means of understanding or controlling it, the results being a genuinely disquieting character study. Indeed, whilst the “mockumentary” stylings have become somewhat prescient, especially in an age of video and now DV (the latest addition to the subgenre being Julian Richards’ well executed, but otherwise lacking The Last Horror Movie), there’s nothing remotely faddish or dated about the film. In many ways the conceit merely allows David Holzman’s Diary to come into being; the real hook, if you will, is Holzman himself.
And certainly he’s a fascinating figure. As played by L.M. Kit Carson (later to make an endearing idiosyncratic documentary on Dennis Hopper) he exudes New York hipster cool, complete with Monkees hairstyle and Jean-Luc Godard quotes at the ready. Yet whilst this suckers us in, there’s plenty going on beyond the modish appearance. Not only does he like watching movies, he likes watching full stop. To a certain extent David Holzman’s Diary plays out like a slightly tamer variation on Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom: there are no murders, but a catalogue of voyeurism nevertheless as he spies on his neighbour’s apartment, follows a woman off the subway, and captures his girlfriend, in her case unwittingly, as she sleeps in the nude.
That said, David Holzman’s Diary is firmly anti-narrative in its execution. The onus is on the audience to provide the reverse angles, as it were, and fill in the larger picture; after all, we’re seeing only what Holzman allows us to see and through his eyes at that. And yet there’s also a great deal of drama to be observed scene for scene, not least because of the various frissons in play. There are the constant tensions between fact and fiction, of course (both within and without the picture), not to mention those between Holzman and the other characters who populate the film’s brisk 73-minute running time. Moreover, the cinematic syntax is cunningly deployed as a means of further drawing us in. As you’d expect Holzman’s filmmaking suffers from its rough edges, yet this only serves to make us pay the utmost attention – the long takes and haphazard soundtrack aren’t there solely to enhance the realism, but consciously controlled so that we’re with him every step of the way.
However, it should also be stated that Holzman is no mere amateur. As the Godard quotes evince, not to mention the nods to Truffaut and Visconti, he clearly knows his stuff and such enthusiasms extend to the then current New York underground scene. As such we’re able to recall John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank and Shirley Clarke whilst watching, not to mention the whole vérité movement spearheaded by D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. Indeed, as much as anything else David Holzman’s Diary is one of the great New York movies, cataloguing its time through slow motion walks around Neadle Park and, for two startling scenes, the use of a fish-eye lens. In parts it’s as though we’re sampling a near relation to either Cassavetes’ Shadows or Martin Scorsese’s feature debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door (which, perhaps without coincidence, was also shot by a young Michael Wadleigh), albeit with less immediate vigour and kineticism, but no less the effect.
Behind all this, however, 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.
Before commenting on David Holzman’s Diary presentation it’s worth noting the qualities inherent in the original production. Given its “mockumentary” approach the wavering soundtrack, numerous scratches and the like are all intentional. As such Second Run really can’t be faulted in their disc. Other than these unavoidable “flaws”, the presentation is absolutely fine: maintaining the original Academy ratio; offering up an excellent level of detail; and demonstrating superb contrast levels. Equally impressive is the soundtrack, here making itself known in the original mono (spread over the front two channels). Once again, outside of the intentional deficiencies there really are no problems to speak of – it remains clean and crisp throughout and as such cannot be faulted. All told, this is one fine presentation.
Even more impressive, however, are the extras which Second Run have mounted for this release. Not only do we get an 18-minute interview with McBride recorded especially, but also his 1969 documentary (and a genuine one at that) My Girlfriend’s Wedding which serves as a kind of follow-up David Holzman’s Diary. In fact it begins with an explicit reference to the film, but then develops into something altogether starker. Essentially, it’s a vérité portrait of Clarissa Ainley, McBride’s then girlfriend. An upper class English woman who headed to America to be part of the “revolution” in 1968, she slowly reveals her life and its remarkable events. We learn of her two children (one of whom was put up for adoption), a recent abortion, her less than happy relationship with her father and, the crux of the film, the fact that she’s about to enter into a green card marriage with a man she met only a week previous.
Of course, the interview pales in comparison somewhat, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be worth our while. Sticking to the disc’s two films as opposed to McBride’s career as a whole – though we’d probably have needed a feature length piece if that were to be the case – here we’re taken through the production of David Holzman’s Diary, from the initial version which McBride made (and then had stolen) to the intention behind My Girlfriend’s Wedding as an accompanying short in order to bulk out the running time (an idea that didn’t quite go to plan, Wedding eventually turning into a feature in its own right).
As with the main feature, there are no optional subtitles available for either the interview or My Girlfriend’s Wedding.