“David Holzman’s Diary” is as much as stunningly-prophetic predictor of “now” as it is a fascinating artifact of “then.”
It’s a 1967 mockumentary before that term was even invented. It was photographed by one of the great documentary cinematographers of all time, “Woodstock” DP Michael Wadleigh, so it looks like what it is purported to be, a self-filmed “diary” of an aspiring NYC filmmaker, David Holzman, even though Holzman was played by L.M. “Kit” Carson and the movie was scripted (mostly) and directed by a young filmmaker who would go on to make “The Big Easy,” the Richard Gere remake of “Breathless” and “Great Balls of Fire!” — Jim McBride.
Watching this darkly-comic tale of a cinema-obsessive in the New York of the ’60s, we can see the cell phone “film” revolution to come and performative “Attention Economy” narcissism of the Tik Tok generation foretold in the story of a film student/graduate who has no ideas for a movie save for making a diary of his own life.
The old joke about budding novelists writing novels about wannabe novelits writing their first novel can apply to film, too, especially in an age where all the tools to make your own movie — an iPhone with a tripod and a little editing software — are so cheap.
Only our fictional David Holzman is doing this back when even filming something as simple as a “diary” of a week in New York when the process of making that diary is tearing your life apart is expensive.
But young Holzman shows us his NPR (noiseless portable reflex) Eclair 16 mm camera and his just-as-pricey portable Swiss NAGRA reel-to-reel recorder, so obviously he has means. Maybe Mommy and Daddy’s money is paying for the film stock (B&W), too.
Holzman lets us see his stumbling attempts to narrate his self-absorbed diary. “This is a fantasy,” he begins, then changes his mind and starts again. “EXPOSE yourself” is his credo, perhaps handed down by an NYU professor, but here sounding like the onanistic exercise this almost certainly will turn out to be.
He’s just lost his job, which means he’s gotten a draft notice in the mail, which means he’s desperate to make something that will either change his employment state or something to leave behind if he’s sent to Vietnam.
Wasting a lot of celluloid isn’t an issue.
He hopes to discover “some meaning” in what’s going on in a life that “seems to haunt me in uncommon ways.”
Or maybe they’re not that uncommon. But that’s exactly how a narcissist would see it.
His aim is to make a sort of “Lulu’s Diary,” referencing the classic Louise Brooks’ silent film “Pandora’s Box.” He quotes “Breathless” filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard noting that his camera “tells the truth 24 times (frames) a second.”
So Holzman will film his world, the streets he walks in the neighborhood (W. 71st Street) on this week in July of 1967, capturing the people along those streets, the storefronts, the historic sites (The Ansonia Hotel, the “Red House”).
He plays around with a fisheye lens, walks us down the longest park bench in New York, taking in the faces he captures as he does, takes us on a noisy subway ride where he stalks a pretty rider as she detrains.
He introduces us to his very reluctant model/girlfriend Penny (Eileen Dietz), who averts her eyes and asks him to stop filming her out-of-makeup. When she catches him filming her nude, sleeping in post-coital repose, she flips out and storms out.
He peeps out his window at the neighbor woman across the street whom he names “Sandra” (Louise Levine) because, you know, he’s looked up the name on the mailbox downstairs — “S. Schwartz” — and decided she “reminds me of Visconti’s Sandra.” He even calls her up and figures out, in a flash, that she isn’t a “Sandra” when she hangs up before he can run through all the other “S” first names he can think of.
So yes, this guy is obsessed and inappropriate and seriously creepy and we’re allowed to laugh at him, maybe cringe a little bit and wonder if there’s a joke in the native-New Yorker McBride giving this creepy character a Jewish surname and if we’re allowed to laugh at that now.
The funniest and most celebrated sequence is perhaps unscripted and is certainly uncredited. A transvestite neighbor pulls up in her T-bird convertible (Hellooo, “Thelma & Louise”), stops traffic (horns honk, other drivers complain and gawk) and engages David — actually McBride, his star and his film crew — in a long, crude come-on of a conversation.
“David” is a a bit amused and a little rattled, and not just at the idea of a New Yorker in the ’60s having the guts to own an easily-broken-into rag-top Thunderbird.
“David Holzman’s Diary” is a lovely snapshot of Manhattan in the ’60s and a biting portrait of the cinema fanatic/film school student of the day, and indeed every day that’s followed. It may portend our current Youtube/Tik Tok “influencer” era, but it more directly inspired the “documentary diaries” of Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) and Michael Moore (“Roger & Me”).
It’s all pretty much faked, and you can see the early comedies of Albert Brooks (“Real Life,” “Lost in America”) and “This is Spinal Tap” in this twist on upending and ridiculing the then-new “cinema verite” documentary conventions of the ’60s.
McBride’s Holzman even brings in an artist friend (Lorenzo Mans) to launch into a diatribe of how the presence of the camera alters the “reality” of what he’s doing, a philosophical debate that erupted when fly-on-the-wall “truth” documentaries in the cinema verite style became a thing.
“David Holzman’s Diary” may not be as funny and off-the-wall transgressive as it once was. But it’s still a marvel, a movie that one can look at now and see the building blocks for the “realistic” DIY cinema to come, and see it brutally mocked well before its “My movie is about ME” time.
Rating: unrated, nudity, profanity
Cast: L.M. “Kit” Carson, Eileen Dietz, Lorenzo Mans, Louise Levine and Robert Lesser.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jim McBride. A Kino Lorber release on Tubi, Mubi, Amazon et al.
Running time: 1:14