David Holzman's Diary comes close to the "dream" of what was possible in the ideal of the American independent cinema of the 1960s. Taking the lessons of John Cassavetes with Shadows and French new wave filmmakers, specifically Godard and Truffaut, Jim McBride decided that shooting a narrative with a documentary approach- following the characters hand-held, without the artifice of a constricting studio- wasn't quite enough to get at a really personal cinema. At the same time his film is something of a cunning, if not always obvious, attack on "personal docu-style" essay movies. The idea that anyone can get a camera and make a movie or something on film about their lives has now mutated into something else with reality TV (True Life on MTV is like a professional extension of David Holzman's Diary), but at the time this was something extraordinary to attempt. And even today, it still shows.
This doesn't mean David Holzman's Diary is perfect, but then how could it ever be? Or would anyone in their right mind think it should be? It's imperfections are part of its... I won't say charm, since the film isn't exactly "charming", but it's got a certain something to it by having some longer takes, some shots or moments that are extended on David Holzman going on and on to the camera about his life, or what little there is of it. It's got that randomness of a diary, of anything popping into one's head put down on record. And that aspect, about film being "truth 24 frames a second, is one of the strongest things about it. It's message is both clear and hard to take: film is something that creates a reality of its own, as the male interviewee says, that a person can't have their own reality because of an aesthetic addition or distraction to it.
This won't be news to anyone who's seen docu-horror films like Blair Witch Project or Diary of the Dead, but the difference here is that of high-minded artistic aspirations. David Holzman is a filmmaker already, so to make a film about himself, mostly with him in his apartment pondering things like Vincente Minelli or Truffaut's comment on a woman's flicking of a wrist like Debbie Reynolds, it's bound to be pretentious. The trick is to know that McBride is mocking this particular high-and-mighty artist who does have some good intentions, while at the same time making a very personal kind of film. Seeing McBride and Michael Wadleigh's camera going down a block, put to the local radio station, then going past old people's faces in close-up in a park or going by a cop who may or may not know a "film" is being shot, is incredible on-the-fly material. That or just Holzman shooting out of the window as a voyeur on another woman in an apartment reveals as much about the character as the filmmaker making the film within the film. Did I mention that Holzman, long before the semi-tragic ending, shoots the television at night one frame every single cut and then puts all the frames together? It's awe-inspiring and breathtaking.
Might sound confusing, but it's worth it to take the experience if you know what you're getting, which is an experiment as much as a essay-style narrative. This doesn't mean all the performances are very good (I liked the woman in the car very much, the girl playing Penny or the male guy being interviewed not so much), but some moments, some truly cinematic experiences come out of it. 9.5/10