Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
"Objects. People. Events. They seem to� speak to me. They seem to carry some
meaning that I can't quite get. My life, though ordinary enough, seems to haunt me
in uncommon ways. It seems to come to me from someone else, and I've been trying to
understand it but it seems that I can't get it. The noted French wit Jean-Luc Godard
said, 'What is film?' Film is truth 24 times a second. So I thought that if I put it
put it all down on film and run it back and forth and put my thumb on it and stop it
when I want to then I got everything, I got it all. I should get it all. I should
understand it all."
14 July 1967, the Upper Westside of New York City... David Holzman has lost his job and has just been reclassified A1 by the draft board. So he decides to keep a diary, on film, about his life, his girlfriend Penny, and the people around him. Yet it doesn't work out the way he hoped.
Long out of circulation, at least in the UK, David Holzman's Diary was a highly influential independent feature. This DVD release gives us the chance to reassess a film that seems now some three decades ahead of its time. A characteristic of the last half-decade in cinema has shown a tendency towards more and more artifice, with the rise and increase in capability of CGI. But on the other hand, there has been a fascination with increased and less and less mediated 'reality': the use of documentary-like techniques in film, the use of video. The fact that reality-TV took off simply demonstrates that the time was right for it. David Holzman's Diary is only dated in its technical aspects. A 21st century Holzman would be shooting in colour DV rather than 16mm black and white.
It's said that audiences at the first showings of David Holzman's Diary took the film at face value, as a genuine document. There are no credits on the film until the very end, when it's revealed that Holzman is played by an actor - L.M. Kit Carson (an actor/writer whose wayward career includes the screenplays for both the 1983 remake of Breathless, directed by Jim McBride, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the 'adaptation' of Paris, Texas). The character name 'Penny Wohl', Holzman's girlfriend, hides the identity of Eileen Dietz, an actress who works to this day, though is perhaps best known for being Linda Blair's body double in The Exorcist. However, other people are not actors: the woman who pulls up in a car and chats to Holzman while he is filming wasn't an actress (and rumour has it not a woman either).
However this film demonstrates that Holzman's goal - to find the truth about his life, whatever that may be - is at best misguided. Certainly there's a darker side to him that is empowered by the camera and tape recorder he carries with him. Maybe Penny sees this before he and we do: from the outset she's made uneasy by the camera's presence, and that's before he starts filming her as she sleeps in the nude. Later, he follows a woman off the subway and is arrested as a peeping tom. (The film also pushes against censorship limits of the day: as well as the full-frontal nudity in the sleeping scene just mentioned there are several 'fucks' on the soundtrack, which is very unusual for a late-1960s' feature.)
The look and sound of cinema verité is brilliantly achieved by McBride and his cameraman Michael Wadleigh (spelled Wadley here - he went on to direct Woodstock and much later Wolfen). All we see and hear (barring the minor cheat of a retrospective voiceover in a late scene) is what Holzman sees and records; we're left to fill in the gaps. The pauses and dead time - and Holzman's experiments with his camera, such as the use of a fisheye lens and his idea to film an entire evening's TV schedule in fast-forward - is so convincing that it belies how tightly organised this film is, and how economical at just under an hour and a quarter. David Holzman's Diary nearly 40 years after it was made looks better and more influential than ever, and is an undoubted highlight of McBride's subsequently erratic career. Full marks to Second Run DVD for making it available.
Also on the DVD is the 62-minute My Girlfriend's Wedding from 1969. This project originated as a short to be exhibited with David Holzman's Diary but grew into the short-feature it ended up as. Although this is a genuine documentary this time - shot in grainy 16mm colour - the filmmakers (McBride and Wadleigh again) take part themselves. McBride is the interviewer and a character in the story, and at one point Wadleigh queries why they are filming a particular scene. The film is a portrait of Clarissa Ainley, McBride's girlfriend at the time. Over an hour we hear about Clarissa, a young woman from an upper-class English background, her two children (one of whom she gave up for adoption), her strained relationship with her disapproving father, and her decision to marry a man, that she had met only ten days previously, to obtain a green card. The film is an engaging and sensitive study of a clearly emotionally damaged woman. McBride returned to Clarissa in the 1971 short Pictures From Life's Other Side, which is not included on this disc.
Second Run's all-regions DVD features both films in their original 4:3 ratios with Dolby digital 2.0 soundtracks. My Girlfriend's Wedding especially looks and sounds rough and ready, but this is in the nature of the material. Some sound dropouts are deliberate, to obscure the names of real people.) The remaining extras are a new 18-minute interview with Jim McBride and a booklet containing an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. The only real shortcoming of an excellent DVD is the lack of any subtitles.