Before “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show,” before the term “mockumentary” was even coined, there was “David Holzman’s Diary.”
The 1967 film by Jim McBride, now available on DVD from Kino, is one of the funniest underground movies ever made. It’s also a marvelous time capsule capturing the look and feel of New York City in the late 1960s.
L.M. Kit Carson plays urban layabout David Holzman, who decides to make a cinematic diary of his life. He hopes that confessing his thoughts to the camera will reveal some kind of inner truth.
“Diary” opens with David in his cramped living room, surrounded by old movie posters and his precious filmmaking equipment. He refers to his Eclair 16mm camera and Nagra tape recorder as “she,” as if they were his romantic partners.
It soon becomes apparent that David doesn’t have a great deal of inner truth to reveal. His girlfriend Penny (Eileen Dietz) comes over and feels uncomfortable being filmed.
“Ignore the camera,” he tells her.
“If you don’t turn it off I’m leaving,” she retorts. Eventually that’s exactly what she does.
David is blithely unaware that filming people invariably changes their behavior. He is fond of quoting Jean-Luc Godard’s statement that “cinema is truth 24 times a second,” but he doesn’t seem to realize that his reality isn’t real.
He tries to get his friend Pepe (Lorenzo Mans) to open up on camera and instead gets reproached.
“Your life is not a very good script,” Pepe says. “Some people’s lives are very good movies. Some people’s lives are bad movies.”
With Penny gone, David declares that “masturbation is an improvement on the real thing because you can think of anything. Think of trains going in tunnels. Think of bagels. You’re not limited to women.”
He becomes a voyeur of the mystery woman in the apartment across the way, a la Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window.” David sets his camera in front of his television and then gives us a rapid-fire mashup of his viewing habits, including “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek” and the nightly news.
Radio reports about the Vietnam War periodically crowd the soundtrack, functioning less as social commentary than as a way of highlighting David’s cluelessness.
He occasionally brings his camera outdoors. In long tracking shots taken from his car, he records the homeless, mothers with strollers, cops and frolicking children.
Gorgeous, sweeping shots of two Upper West Side landmarks, the Ansonia and the Dakota, are interspersed with languorous images of life in the New York subways, which are reminiscent of Walker Evans’s Depression-era photos of the subterranean city.
Godard had already been making experimental “New Wave” films in France, but McBride gave his hero’s fantasy/reality games a very American spin. (Years later McBride directed a misguided remake of Godard’s “Breathless” starring Richard Gere.)
Included in the Kino DVD are three other McBride films: “My Girlfriend’s Wedding” (1969), a sad and lovely documentary about his then-girlfriend Clarissa; the wonderful “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” (1971), where he, Clarissa and her young son drive across the country; and the short “My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law” (2008).
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).