Jim McBride, L.M. Kit Carson and Michael Wadleigh's 'David Holzman's Diary'
In the fall of 1968, I saw David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride, L.M. Kit Carson, Michael Wadleigh) at New York University Film School. McBride's team created a world that appeared to the viewer as a documentary, but was a total fiction. David Holzman's Diary is, in many respects, the staged documentary which started a movement that embraced a style of reality filmmaking and fiction filmmaking. With the handheld camera, the fictional documentary filmmaker becomes the central character--a sometimes tragic, sometimes comic hero taking us on a journey that is sometimes very personal.
That screening forever changed my relationship with film. Without David Holzman's Diary, there would be no No Lies, my staged short film that I would make four years later; indeed, David Holzman's Diary informed my later work as a film producer, filmmaker and distributor.
I believed David Holzman. I loved his film. I wanted to be him. What young aspiring filmmaker in 1968 would not want to be Holzman? His life was falling apart before our eyes, but we loved this guy. In the end, Holzman's Éclair camera and Nagra are stolen, leaving him without a way to work--so the film ends over black as Holzman tells us what has happened.
This was something we students could all relate to, since our cinematography teacher, Fred "Beta" Badka, kept his Arri 35mm cameras in a bank vault. Like the French New Wave works we were seeing, the film was cool. Its hero's downward spiral, personally and painfully documented, makes his character lovable.
Filmmaking would never be the same. David Holzman's Diary is perhaps the inspiration for the next few generations of both documentary and fiction filmmakers. It shows that the documentary filmmaker (Holzman) could be a hero and a character within his own work, be it a "real" doc or a "fake" doc. This genre continues to evolve--the difference between "real" and "staged" blurs.
The documentary film hero now is no longer limited to being a journalist covering a story (60 Minutes), or a host (Candid Camera), but now can be the star. We can see documentary filmmakers on a global level being the hero: Dennis O'Rourke in Good Woman of Bangkok searching for love, Ross McElwee looking at his life, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky looking for the killer, Errol Morris confronting Dr. Death or Robert S. McNamara, Lynne Littman and Barbara Myerhoff searching for their roots, and so on. We can laugh at Michael Moore (or with him) as we can laugh at Sascha Baron Cohen--both clowns, both careful inventions. I suspect that Borat will reinvigorate the form with its box office success the same way that Moore has done with his hits. A scary thought for us purists.
(Adapted from Block's essay "The Truth about No Lies (If You Can Believe It)," which appears in F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, editors.).
Mitchell W. Block is currently executive-producing CARRIER PROJECT, a 10-hour documentary series and feature film he conceived, for Mel Gibson's Icon Productions. His nonprofit distribution company Direct Cinema Limited handles many outstanding documentaries and shorts. For the past 26 years, he has been taught independent producing in the Peter Stark Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
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