There are films that are released at precisely the right time. They strike a chord with the cultural zeitgeist so clear that they run the risk of becoming dated as soon as they leave the theatres. Then there are films that are released before their time. These are films that either deal with subject matter or use a style that audiences are unfamiliar with, so that it may take time for them to find an audience. David Holzman’s Diary is a film that, remarkably, fits into both categories.
The film is a faux-documentary, or a mocumentary about the cinephile David Holtzman who is having troubles in his life. The Vietnam War is raging; he is having troubles with his girlfriend and simply losing focus on his own life. But since he is a gigantic film fan, especially of Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma-crowd, he decides that the best way to get a handle on his life would be to turn his camera on himself. As he quotes Godard in the film: “Film is truth 24 times a second.”
The resulting film instead shows the audience just how wrong that is. In fact the more David films the more his life seems to go out of order. One of his creepiest aspects is his voyeurism. In an early scene he secretly films a conversation with a prostitute. In it he confesses the fact that he’s more interested in watching sex through the lens of a camera than actually performing it. He later states that he’s growing bored by his beautiful model girlfriend because of her unwillingness to perform for his camera. As the film continues his voyeurism turns into full-on stalking in a thoroughly creepy scene where he follows a girl through an empty subway station at night.
The fact that the film plays so with tone gives one a real uncertainty about just how much the people the fictional “David” is filming are in on the joke. How much is acted and how much is some sort of gonzo stunt where a fictional character interacts with real people, not unlike the film and television work of Sasha Baron Cohen.
When David Holzman’s Diary was filmed, there was a huge boom in so called Cinema Vérité documentaries. Observational, fly-on-the-wall films such as D.A. Pennybaker’s Primary and Don’t Look Back, and the Maysles brothers’ films Grey Gardens and Gimmie Shelter. David sees this style as gospel and as pure unfiltered truth, but ignores the fact that the mere presence of a camera will alter what happens in front of it. The camera is never able to truly film a situation without the intrusion of a camera in the situation.
The outline of the film was written by its director Jim McBride and then heavily improvised by its star L.M. Kit Carson. The result is a film that has such a strong hold on its tone and form that it’s easy to be fooled as a first time viewer. It is so convincing as a documentary that the scenes where David starts to stalk innocent women it stops being funny and turns quietly unsettling. Many great mocumentaries have been made, where you never really believe that what you are seeing is the real thing. David Holzman’s Diary is one of the rare films that truly convinces in its artificiality.
Although the film was made spoofing a specific time and place, and the cinematic trends going on then, it has only gained resonance. Audiences today are far more accustomed to the form of mocumentary, with popular films and television programs adapting the form. David Holzman’s Diary is a film that could have ended up as an interesting snapshot of the era. Instead it has only gained resonance when we live in an era where anyone and seemingly everyone turns the camera onto themselves and then uploads it onto youtube.