Tuesday, June 13, 2017

David Holzman's Diary

I can't imagine how progressive 1968's DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY must've seemed to its original audiences.  Mind blowing, I would think.  Viewed in 2016 it seemed quite ahead of its time, a precursor to YouTube and reality T.V.  That is, once you get past the dated element of having its subject - a young New Yorker who decides to put his life on film - lug around heavy equipment like a shoulder mounted camera and reel to reel tape recorder.  But everything else is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the summer of 1967 and likely well before.

David (L.M. Kit Carson) is a newly unemployed twenty-something who decides to put Jean-Luc Godard's statement "The cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second" to a test.  As Holzman's life seems to be scattershot, frustrating, and without purpose, he wonders if filming himself and his surroundings, then "playing the film back and forth" will offer some enlightenment. Is this because he feels that the camera will objectively document a landscape that is often confusing to process? Or is it that the movies have provided David will some level of comfort in the past? He's very learned of the cinema, discussing the likes of Truffaut and Vincente Minnelli.

The young man's friend, a verbose artist named Pepe, explains why he thinks the whole project is a bad idea. Pepe explains that subjects who know they are being filmed can't act naturally, and will inevitably become concerned about how to pose, what side of the frame to sit in, etc. Real life is no longer real life when it is captured on celluloid; it "becomes part of something else."  Most people do not feel comfortable with an electronic voyeur, perhaps even those who sign up for current shows like Big Brother.  On a side note, I had a patient who once starred on that show and explained, quite conversely, that he didn't mind having dozens of cameras document his teeth brushing and combat with roommates.  He found it quite boring, in fact. One idea that this movie does not consider is how incentivization affects the process.  

David Holzman sometimes sits in front of the camera and discusses his life, other times narrating while shooting street life and the window of the woman who lives across from him.  In an early sequence, David pans down the streets of his Upper West Side neighborhood and describes the significance of certain buildings like The Dakota.  I had an odd moment of recognizance just then, recalling how I did much the same on an early '90s trip to NYC.  I had a bulky camera rented from Blockbuster Video and I pointed it at everything.  There was a moment when I left it running on a brick wall as I walked away.  A passerby politely stated how ill advised that was - "This is New York."

I'm sure I irritated some people.  One early morning on a subway platform I irritated the friend with whom I was traveling, his head shaking as I slowly framed the area.  David irritates his girlfriend, Penny (Eileen Dietz) with his insistence on filming her cooking, sitting, even sleeping. In the nude.  The latter is the final straw; she angrily bolts from his apartment in the wee hours when she discovers his hovering.  David can't really understand why this woman, a model who is no stranger to the camera, is so reluctant.  He explains that she is part of life, so he needs to film her.  Perhaps she did not need to figure out her own purpose.  Perhaps she was content.

DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY, directed by young talent Jim McBride, who would go on to helm THE BIG EASY and a remake of Godard's BREATHLESS in the '80s, really is a stunningly fascinating experiment.  I was expecting another pretentious ego trip; there were many of this type in the late '60s and beyond.  But even though David is a bit of a prig and a cipher (not to mention stalker), we can understand and maybe sympathize with him a little.  Plus there are some really mesmerizing sequences, like the circling of the elderly on park benches while we hear a recording of a voting session at the United Nations. Also, the excitement of the use of a fish eye lens for the first time.  Or hearing radio broadcasts of the news while the camera roams the streets, most tellingly by people of color as we hear news of riots in Newark.

I also found the scene where David unspools a film of his night of watching prime time T.V. - shown like someone is fast forwarding a tape -  a parade of images showcasing hours of programs like Batman and Star Trek and the evening news, along with all the commercials in between - quite engrossing and disturbing.  It plays in a way that perhaps mirrors the way we remember all the television and movies we've seen.  Random snippets flying by, perhaps some laden with subliminal messages.  Like one's own life passing by.

Does David find purpose at the end?  He finds reality.  Perhaps like his many progenitors of decades later would.

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