Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of the Netflix release of Sundance sensation Dick Johnson Is Dead, we’re looking back on other documentaries with deeply personal angles.
From its earliest origins, nonfiction filmmakers have manipulated reality in order to capture larger truths. Whether that amounts to minor staging or more deliberate editing, it inevitably affects whatever they capture, implicitly authoring the frame even when purported purpose is to observe. In other words, the presence of a camera inevitably changes whatever is in front of it. Even the most direct cinema has been made up of many small lies.
In 1967, Jim McBride and his collaborator L. M. Kit Carson were assigned to write a book on cinema verité by the Museum Of Modern Art. They knew that a camera renders everything “un-real,” and that a text about that unreality would be even less truthful. So they decided to take their advance money and with borrowed camera equipment make a metafictional mock-documentary about this very idea. The resulting movie, David Holzman’s Diary, follows an ostensibly real unemployed man (played by Carson) who takes Jean-Luc Godard’s quote about film being “truth 24 times a second” too literally and decides to film his life so as to better understand it. In the process of making the project, he leans into his latent sociopathic tendencies, and by the end, his life falls apart and he’s no closer to understanding himself.
Festival audiences were reportedly outraged by the end credits, which revealed that David Holzman was fictional. That reaction speaks to McBride’s masterful repurposing of verité aesthetics. McBride and Carson successfully create the illusion of an actual film diary, which mostly features static shots of Holzman speaking directly into the camera or handheld, recognizably amateurish footage of his apartment and his Upper West Side neighborhood. It’s entirely believable that someone with access to this kind of equipment would make a film like this, and that only makes the eventual reveal more cutting.
Is David Holzman’s Diary a documentary? It likely doesn’t meet most traditional definitions, instead skirting the line of experimental fiction, and its nonfiction elements can be interpreted as merely a conceit. Yet McBride’s interrogation of documentary methods and aesthetics—his active examination of the idea that reality can be shaped by a camera—helped pioneer a philosophy of documentary cinema that’s active today, in the work of directors like Robert Greene, the Ross Brothers, and many others. Within all the theoretical meta-fiction, McBride also captures New York during a summer of intense political strife, so much so that David Holzman’s Diary often plays like a time capsule. He frequently overlays the footage with radio broadcasts of social unrest and the Vietnam war, never allowing Holzman’s to be the only voice the audience hears.
McBride constantly makes viewers aware of the character’s solipsism and how it shapes Holzman’s choices in front of and behind the camera. There’s a controlling prurience to much of what Holzman films, including otherwise neutral footage of strangers on the street, until we eventually exclusively see the world through his eyes. Anything he shoots becomes permanently filtered through his myopic pathology, constraining his whole world. Holzman’s instincts are aesthetic rather than autobiographical because the subconscious goal is to reduce life to a digestible package.
McBride’s point, however, is that the audience can perceive what Holzman cannot, even though he has the ability to pore over a record rather than rely on memory. Initially, Holzman comes across as merely an oddball cinephile, but the film quickly reveals his discomfiting voyeurism. In an early scene, he stalks his girlfriend, Penny, around the apartment with the camera despite her vocal objections, prompting her to leave. They later make up, but she splits for good when she discovers him filming her while she’s asleep naked. Other times, Holzman shoots his female neighbor from across the street, and at one point, he follows a woman with his camera from the subway up to the street until she confronts him. The only person who combats Holzman’s gaze is a sexually aggressive nude model he meets on the street. She plays directly to the camera and refuses to be demure, shining a light on his insecurities. Holzman might have wanted to learn the truth about himself, but if he really studied the footage, he might not like what he sees.
Though its legacy is tied to its then-novelty (very few people back then were casually walking around with cameras), David Holzman’s Diary looks pretty modern at a time when entire generations have been raised on YouTube. McBride’s film endures because it exposes the foundations and conceits inherent in even the most personal documentaries, while also demonstrating that those elements don’t negate the larger truths being captured. David Holzman’s Diary plays like a record of what happens when your choices exclusively serve the god you worship—in Holzman’s case, cinema—instead of yourself. What better time than now, when even the most obvious truths are called out as falsehoods, to watch a cautionary tale about defaulting to our worst impulses while the world burns?