David Holzman’s Diary

(Jim McBride, USA, 1968)


In his early twenties, on a staggeringly small budget of $2,500, Jim McBride began making David Holzman’s Diary from three ideas: the central image of a man filming himself in a mirror; the banality of daily life and its rendering on screen; the oppressiveness of life in New York and how it affects people’s perceptions of themselves and others.

David (played by screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson) is a schmuck. He decides to film the smallest details of his daily life in order to "find the truth". But his approach, by turns obsessive, voyeuristic and paranoiac, swiftly alienates everyone around him.

Far from a standard mockumentary or shambling, comic satire, McBride’s recreation of the stages of this fictive, audiovisual diary is peppered with dramatic ellipses, emotional suspense, and a pleasing, always surprising set of varying situations.

This is a one-off classic of independent filmmaking. It is also remarkably prescient. The cinéma-vérité obsessions of the ’60s targeted here were to reach their full flowering much later, in the eras of video and digital – in retrospect rendering the exaggerated fiction of this anti-hero scarcely exaggerated at all. (Indeed, McBride has a remake for the digital age on his mind.)

The smug narcissism of Video Fool For Love (Robert Gibson, 1996), the gushy epiphanies of La Rencontre (Alain Cavalier, 1996), the truth-telling fantasies of the Dogme school: their critique has already been offered, long ago, by McBride and his inspired collaborators.

David Holzman’s Diary has aged well. Not only has it been paid elaborate homage (for example in the Australian low-budget feature Yackety Yack [1974] and Roman Coppola’s CQ [2001]), but its formal inventions have prefigured many notable cinematic experiments: static long takes with monologues; extended passages of black screen; fish-eye distortions; lateral travellings that offer Arbus-like views of everyday grotesquerie; single-frame pixillations filmed off commercial TV …

McBride had already, effortlessly synthesised the legacies of Godard, Jonas Mekas and Direct Cinema, weaving a disquieting comedy of New York life from these diverse ingredients.

MORE McBride: Great Balls of Fire!, The Wrong Man

© Adrian Martin May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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