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A filmmaker's distorted reflections. BY WARREN CLEMENTS
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to take a course from Jay Leyda, a film historian and author who had studied under Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Every week, Leyda would show his students a movie, often with a trick up his sleeve.
One memorable week, he presented David Holzman’s Diary, a black-and-white 1967 documentary that opens as Holzman, a young man living on the Upper West Side of New York City, is filming himself in a mirror. “This is July 14, 1967,” he says. “This is serious.”
Holzman has lost his job. The draft board has told him he may be sent to fight in Vietnam. Quoting French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (“Film is truth, 24 times a second”), Holzman resolves to record everything that happens to him in the belief that reviewing the footage will help him understand his life.
And that’s the gist of the film. In the same way that U.S. columnist Bob Greene once wrote that he had “lost the ability to live my life if it’s not going to end up on paper,” so Holzman keeps filming even at the risk of alienating his girlfriend Penny, a model who tells him to shut off the camera if he wants her to stay. (He does, but only temporarily.) He films his friends. He films strangers on the street. He films neighbours through their apartment windows.
It becomes clear that Holzman is not a particularly nice person. He tells the camera his girlfriend is vain and sloppy. He muses about a neighbour whom he knows only from seeing her through a window and learning from her mailbox that her first initial is S. “I call her Sandra, because she reminds me of Visconti’s Sandra, being opaque like that.”
And so it goes – until the film ends, 73 minutes later, with a title card telling us that Holzman was played by L.M. Kit Carson, that the other characters were also actors, and that this stimulating film was made by Jim McBride, who directed, edited and, with Carson’s help, wrote it. One of the cameramen was Mike “Wadley,” who as Michael “Wadleigh” would soon direct the music documentary Woodstock.
Gotcha, said our professor. David Holzman’s Diary was both a character study and a put-on, a commentary on cinema verité and the degree to which the camera in a documentary influences the material it captures.
In a 1970 interview excerpted in Leyda’s 1977 book Voices of Film Experience, McBride says the idea for the film came to him as an obsessive image “of a guy with a camera on his shoulder filming himself in a mirror. And that image seemed terribly profound to me. I’m not sure I could explain why.”
McBride went on to be a mainstream filmmaker, sometimes successful (The Big Easy) and sometimes not (a pointless remake of Godard’sBreathless). He also made three films about his own life, and they are included on this week’s Kino DVD and Blu-ray of David Holzman’s Diary.
My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969) is a 61-minute movie about a British woman who is living with McBride but marries another man so she can stay in the United States. It seems like fiction, but isn’t. The 45-minute Pictures from Life’s Other Side (1971) records a cross-country car trip that McBride and a pregnant Clarissa (the woman from the first film) took with her son.
Those films are sometimes fuzzily shot and sometimes dull the way home movies can be, but the third film, the eight-minute My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law (2008), brings everything into focus. It not only clarifies the meaning of the first two movies but humorously explains the complex connections within McBride’s extended family, where figures such as Kenneth Tynan and Robert Mapplethorpe are just part of the mix.
And yes, somewhere along the line McBride films himself in a mirror.