I thought the name Jim McBride sounded familiar, and then it hit me with a big "Duh! Of course!" when I finally got a chance to look at his IMDB page. He's the guy who directed the 1980s remake of Breathless, replacing Jean-Paul Belmondo with Richard Gere and sucking all the spontaneity and inventiveness right out of Jean-Luc Godard's original concept. All the more ironic, then, that his first feature, the independently produced David Holzman's Diary, so heavily references and owes a debt to Godard and his compadres in the French New Wave. There is quite a gulf between original impulse and eventual execution, something McBride's cinematic protagonist learns all too well.
David Holzman's Diary was released in 1967. It starred L.M. Kit Carson (a writer on Paris, Texas [review] and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) as David, a young man of his era, concerned with the draft and his recent unemployment, just like any other fellow his age would be. Looking to fill his time, and also to maybe wrest a little meaning and control out of his upended existence, David starts to record diary entries with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder. These aimless monologues quickly turn from his own boring existence and begin to look outward: he spies on the woman across the street, another woman tells him about her sex life, his friend (Lorenzo Mans) dismisses his endeavors and his quest for truth. David's girlfriend (Eileen Dietz) sees the now ever-present camera as an intrusion, and she's probably right. David, who can quote Godard and Truffaut liberally, lets it take over his life.
It's pretty amazing to consider how far ahead of the curve McBride was when he wrote and directed David Holzman's Diary. There was no such thing as vlogging or even regular blogging back then, no reality television, no notion that the masses would ever have such accessible outlets to record the minutia of their everyday lives. There also wasn't the same prevalence of fake documentaries, McBride was really blazing a new trail. He smartly doesn't limit David's recordings to his rambling thought processes, instead cutting up the narrative with footage of David's street, a montage of everything David sees on television over the course of one night, playing around with a new lens--the kind of things a guy might get up to when he is bored and has a camera and nothing better to do.
L.M. Kit Carson is utterly convincing as David. His performance feels extremely real, it never comes across as a put-on. His aimlessness does not seem calculated or choreographed; rather, it's the unfocused wanderings of a guy with no plan and no clear ambition. Perhaps it's his own lack of focus that causes the project to fail for him, not some inherent flaw in cinema. He expected that Godard's oft-quoted maxim that film is truth 24 times a second to hold true, and that by recording his life for posterity he would figure out some secret about himself or the meaning of existence. This, of course, does not come, and his expressions of anger towards the unseen, intangible figure of capital-C Cinema is maybe a discovery that an education in film is no education at all. Sitting in front of a camera is no substitute for living, just as sitting and watching what others do on camera isn't, either.
Maybe this betrayal was one Jim McBride felt for real, as well. Ben Stiller would actually parody the notion of video diaries on his early '90s sketch comedy show, and in his skits, his camera would always capture too much and he'd end up humiliated. It seems to be a common aggravation for those who bank too heavily on these clunky old machines. And maybe this ran through Jim McBride's head fifteen years later when he started rolling on his Breathless remake. He was going to get back at Godard for making him a chump. He was proving there was no one truth, the entirety of motion picturedom is malleable.
Then again, maybe not. David Holzman's Diary is its own validation. It did kick off an ongoing career in cinema, so I'd believe that despite whatever lack of success I perceive in his version of Breathless, McBride's intentions were likely honorable. He start out by making David Holzman's Diary, which remains a very good, very successful film regardless of what came after. All that film history clearly came to some profit for the filmmaker, even if didn't for his alter ego.