You would be hard-pressed to find a film that feels more predictive than David Holzman’s Diary, Jim Mcbride’s low-key 1967 masterpiece about a young experimental filmmaker who stumbles into questionable ethical territory when he decides to record his own life. It’s impossible to know who has seen this hard-to-find, gleefully petulant mockumentary, or when. But once you’ve watched it, its stamp glows on everything from The Blair Witch Project to Igby Goes Down. Is it every filmmaker’s best-kept secret influence or did Mcbride and his collaborators see a future of webcams, reality TV and Slacker culture long before the masses?
David Holzman is an uptown boy with European tastes and a chip on his shoulder. He admires the works of Truffaut and Godard and is frustrated by his fashion-model girlfriend, Penny, who looks pretty but is actually “a slob… with a ring of dirt on her chin.” The film opens with David (played with impish charm and insufferable insolence by L.M. Kit Carson, who also wrote the screenplay) seated in his bedroom, talking directly to his Bolex, nicknamed “Éclair”, about the mission he is about on embark on. He plans to record his day-to-day existence, verite. “It’s time to stop, bring your life into focus, and expose yourself. This is July 14th, 1967. This is serious.” Like his role model Godard, David believes “film is truth 24 times a second” (the repeated, subtle bungling of this quote is representative of his earnest ignorance, and of the tiny atrocities soon to be committed in the name of art).
David spends aimless days following friends, neighbors, and strangers in an attempt to reveal this aforementioned truth. No job (probably bankrolled by tolerant parents), he has just received his draft card, a fact he addresses with cool nonchalance. He moves down the street, capturing the curious faces of the Upper West Side in slow pans that feel like Diane Arbus set in motion. A child of Hitchcock, David watches his neighbors, revealing the menace inherent in a pair of parted curtains. A “street goddess” in a car attempts to pick him up. When he refuses, she asks if he’s asexual. “No,” he responds. “I’m a voyeur.”
David’s desire to record his meandering routine quickly turns detached and destructive. His best friend is entirely un-amused by the presence of “Éclair” and can’t seem to just “be himself” on camera. (My father, himself a child of the sixties, attempted to explain this reaction to me, Miss Facebook Photo. “A movie camera was a far weirder, more invasive object back then.”) A neighbor that David watches nightly threatens to call the police. Penny rips the camera from his hands and promptly leaves him after he films her sleeping, a long, oddly scientific pan of her nude body at rest. Good riddance. “I can get back to real stuff now. Like masturbation.”
Indeed, there is no redemption, no great life lesson waiting for David. The film ends, just as abruptly as it began, with David still in the throes of art-making. His project is collapsing before him, but like all Cecil B. Demented’s, he keeps the faith and avoids the blame. “You have made me do things!” he screams at the audience, shutting the camera off. After a blip of black he is back, calmer. He wants and needs to live on camera. It gives his life substance. After all, if a guy smokes a cigarette in a studio apartment and no one was there to see it, did he really smoke at all? David isn’t ready to give up the fight, so he knows he can’t burn his most important bridge. “I’m sorry, Éclair.”
— Lena Dunham