In the crawlspace between the mockumentary and the documentary, there exists a group of movies that can tentatively be described as “false cinema”: They look exactly like fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but they are, from the ground up, total fabrications. Recent examples can include Catfish and (as it has been suggested) Exit Through the Gift Shop, though the real point of origin is either Peter Watkins’s The War Game (which won the documentary Oscar for 1967) or Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, depending on where you draw the fault lines. The group, which also can be said to include The Blair Witch Project, most of Watkins’s other films (up to and including La Commune (Paris, 1871)), and a handful of others, is barely large enough to form a cohesive unit, yet a few distinct tendencies bind them together. They favor a cinéma vérité, you-are-there approach and, in keeping with documentary conventions, have actors speak directly into the camera, or to an off-camera interviewer. The director often appears on screen or is acknowledged in some way.
The fact that viewers are aware of a film’s falsehoods, or can detect them, doesn’t cause their power as artworks to dissipate—quite the contrary. While there are no witches in Blair, and there certainly were no TV news crews at the Battle of Culloden, and no such person as David Holzman, the effects these movies create are quite potent, and their images are indelible. They can also be called “puzzle films” because they transmit meaning and effect through fragments of truth and lies and back again. They are false documents, meticulously forged, but they conceal nothing.
David Holzman’s Diary, a highly prophetic independent film (it was made in 1967, but there’s so much in cinema and television that has to answer to it), is from stem to stern a simulacrum of that era’s cinéma vérité movement, but its seamlessness as such is due in large part, paradoxically, to its theatrical qualities, in which the raw quality of each scene and performance, examined closely, is revealed to be the result of meticulous preparation and rehearsal, or, at least, some highly skilled improvisation.
Its setup is crisp and clean (a filmmaker steps in front of his own camera and begins to document his life), but it becomes clear that our protagonist is the butt of a magnificent cosmic joke: He’s naked to everyone, but invisible to himself. As it happens, we meet David in personal and professional freefall. Bad choices, bad pathology, and just plain bad luck coalesce into a black cloud that eventually consumes his life, and before the spare title cards indicate the film’s conclusion, our hero will have lost his girlfriend, his camera and sound kit, and revealed himself to be a minor sociopath with major control issues.
What also makes David Holzman’s Diary effective as a puzzle film is the way it provokes us to piece together, mentally, the life that David must have had before we met him. He isn’t exactly affluent (his Manhattan loft, in 1967, wouldn’t have been priced out of reach to all but the power elite, as it certainly would be today), but he dresses reasonably well, hobnobs with artsy types, and his live-in girlfriend is a model. The personality traits that eventually do him in would likely have been tolerated while he was gainfully employed, and certainly before he placed a camera between himself and everyone around him. Then again, they may also have cost him his job, and his relationship already seems to be in shambles. The film operates broadly as a satire of the vérité genre: David’s idea of capturing his life on film consists of filming his girlfriend, a professional photographic image at all other times, when she’s least likely to be amenable to being filmed. But she’s not the only one he stalks, as he also peeps at his neighbor across the way, L.B. Jeffries style.
This all sounds like the makings of a poverty-row thriller, the kind that would inspire a young Brian De Palma, but director Jim McBride has a lot more on his agenda. The film balances long takes that reveal David’s genuinely creepy preoccupations, stalker tendencies, and antisocial behavior, with ones that show him in a more compassionate light. The scene in which David frames himself within the bird’s-eye-view of his newly acquired fisheye lens is as giddy and gleeful a scene as you are likely to find in movies about moviemaking. His long, curbside conversation with a charismatic transvestite model has to be some kind of tiny masterpiece. Even his worst moments have some kind of meditative dignity, as when he discusses the known and unknown-ness of his nubile neighbor, who may be a Sharon or a Susan or something. The film’s end is an absolute in a number of ways: at wit’s end, out of options, the end of the reel, the end of David’s filmmaking aspirations. Nothing has gone well for poor David, but, in the final monologue, there’s no tone of despair. McBride seems to have set him free.