David Holzman’s Diary contemplates the way cinema personifies the axiom “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” exploring a fictionalized account of title character David Holzman’s (L.M. Kit Carson) well-meaning but fatally flawed attempt to find meaning in life by filming daily routines and conversations. Jim McBride’s faux-documentary feels like a watershed moment in film history, foreshadowing a shift toward a more mechanical, oppressive, even menacing form of cinematic expression multiple decades before the pervasiveness of the Internet and digital technology. Like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, David Holzman’s Diary skewers the filmic footprints of its cinematic forefathers by complicating perspective, blurring the line between fantasy and reality in jarring ways. During David’s multiple tirades and confessions, where he vents about everything from his relationship with model girlfriend, Penny (Eileen Dietz), to the stalking of a female neighbor, you can almost feel the impending digital storm on the horizon.
David films himself over the course of a week to “bring his life into focus.” He begins the process by establishing the importance of his equipment, personalizing each camera and sound recording device by giving them nicknames. McBride even cuts to design pictures of each machine, presenting them as if they were part of a photo album of friends. “This is a fairy tale,” David goes on to say, and technological instruments will act as his conscience, moral compass, and psychologist during the creation of this self-perpetrated fantasy world. David has a keen desire to bring life into focus, something McBride literalizes with a swift rack focus shot early in the film. It all seems like serious business, and part of the film’s genius stems from how other people gradually erode away David’s intentions and confidence during his most vulnerable moments. The trend begins early when he initially films Penny in what becomes the first of many confrontational disasters between David and the people around him. “I don’t get her sense of privacy,” David confesses, commenting on the seemingly contradictory nature of Penny’s worldview. She’ll let strangers film her during professional modeling shoots, but not the man who’s supposed to be her closest companion in the privacy of their own apartment.
Paradoxes litter David Holzman’s Diary, especially during the film’s most pivotal scene between David and a friend named Pepe (Lorenzo Mans). In a single take, Pepe unloads on the fallacies of David’s project, lecturing the camera about the ethical complications inherent to filming everyday life as if it were an ongoing narrative. “Some people’s lives are good movies, some people’s lives are bad movies. Decisions stop being moral and start being aesthetical.” Pepe angrily paces back and forth across the room, flanked by a gigantic mural that takes up the entire wall behind him. David’s camera follows him like a pacing dog eyeing a bone; salivating for more cinematic attention. “It stops being your life and starts being a work of art, a bad work of art,” Pepe says before finally asking David to stop filming. We’re never really sure if he truly hears Pepe’s concerns, but all bets point against it. From here, David Holzman’s Diary grows increasingly jumpy, mirroring David’s dive down an indulgent and dangerous rabbit hole.
When David isn’t interviewing himself, he’s roaming the streets of the Upper West Side of New York City experimenting with fish-eye lenses and long-take camera movements, documenting one small moment after another. One extended tracking shot along a bench, on which seniors and homeless men sit, snakes on one axis for a few minutes, capturing the single moment each person realizes their lives are being filmed. Some perk up, while others just try and look away, but David keeps moving down the line nonetheless. Another telling sequence shows David filming from atop what appears to be an open-air bus, and an ocean of reflective apartment windows project back beams of light into his viewfinder. Details like these establish David’s unflinching pursuit as something textual rather than experiential. When he film’s an attractive neighbor from afar, David lives and dreams through the shape of her shadow, the unique gestures she makes with her hands, and the way she walks through a given space. At this point, the woman isn’t even a person anymore, but something far more ethereal and abstract.
With its emphasis on voyeurism and obsession, David’s experience with filmmaking seems predetermined for a downward spiral. McBride fulfils this promise in the narrative when Penny finally breaks up with David over a voice message read by an operator. But this minor embarrassment leads to an even greater one: While filming outside Penny’s apartment, David gets caught by a police officer and is forced to confess his creepy actions to her face. David’s life has completely folded inward, isolating his once hopeful perspective in a sea of repression. McBride conducts one last tumultuous interview where David turns on the technological apparatuses he feels has led him down a destructive path. “I thought this would be a film about the mystery of things…but you don’t show me the right things!” Delusion has permanently set in, and David’s confined apartment becomes overrun with film stock, electric cords, and the like. In an even more disturbing twist, David backtracks and apologizes to his equipment by name, as if to regain the lifeless mechanism’s trust.
McBride ends David Holzman’s Diary by stripping David of all things personal, forcing him to reinvent the process of cinematic expression one more time. After getting all of the equipment stolen from his apartment, David records a last confession on an audio record, before taking pictures of himself holding the record in a photo booth. David’s final words, segueing the previous scene, echo McBride’s true thematic intent. “It’s a deal. It’s a deal.” David has most definitely made a deal, but whether it’s with the devil or technology itself is still up for discussion. They may even be flipsides to the same coin. One thing is certain though: Whether David’s calling “action” or “cut” on his own life, he’ll never be the same man again. This is life as certified copy.
Presented by Lorber Films in a 1080p hi-def transfer, David Holzman's Diary has a pristine, almost effervescent look to it. Every frame is perfectly rendered and balanced with light, a huge upswing from the previous VHS and DVD transfers of the film. Whether the camera is moving outside through the streets of New York City, or cornered in David's apartment, the image quality is superb. The black levels are balanced to convey the gritty texture of 1960's urban existence, but are never blurred or interrupted by print flaws. The audio is incredibly raspy on purpose, but is still clear during even the most complex moments of overlapping sound.
Three of Jim McBride's films, organized under the fitting title "Jim McBride's Diaries" make up the entirety of the extras on this disc. My Girlfriend's Wedding, from 1969, charts McBride's girlfriend and her marriage to another man for a green card, further expanding the director's confrontational aesthetic into the realm of actual documentary. Pictures from Life's Other Side, from 1971, is even stranger, following McBride and his family's westward jaunt across the United States via gloriously fragmented bursts of voiceover and elliptical imagery. My Son's Wedding to My Sister-in-Law, from 2008, attempts to clarify McBride's muddled web of interlocking relatives, children, and siblings, and for the most part succeeds without being too incestual.
David Holzman’s Diary is a haunting certified copy of one man’s disintegrating life—blinding in its fragmented treatment of artificial self-representation.