From the Golden Age of Media Criticism: David Holzman’s Diary (1967)
Above: David Holzman’s Diary demonstrates how TV works.
The above clip from David Holzman’s Diary demonstrates the functioning of a television set and why it is so effective. We can consciously (or cynically) disavow what we see, float in and out of attentiveness, or change the channel – but as in the above clip, the raw effect of television is to impress thousands of carefully curated images upon the brain. By showing television in its reduced form, this clip demonstrates the futility of conscious engagement with the medium.
Beyond offering this insight into television, David Holzman’s Diary is a classic of media criticism. It marks the inauguration of the mock-documentary genre, appearing as a novelty in1967. The film draws into question the assumption of objectivity that accompanied the cinema verité documentary movement. It concerns a New York filmmaker who, ironically sensing a disconnection from reality, decides to film everything in his life. As such, the film consists of diary passages in which David Holzman opens up to his camera, or alternatively ventures out into the public sphere. It mixes staged narrative passages with pure observational cinema, in the spirit of New York street photography.
In the film’s introductory diary passage, David lovingly quotes Jean-Luc Godard – “Film is truth 24 times a second.” For the duration of the film, it relentlessly interrogates the legitimacy of Godard’s statement. Of course, in its superstructure – as a fake documentary – the film is closer to showing a lie than to showing the truth. However, the events which unfold are all imbued with a strong documentary realism – they are either totally dry and quotidian (like Holzman sitting in front of the camera and not knowing what to say), or provoked by the ridiculous spectacle of Holzman’s bulky 16mm camera and tape recorder in the public sphere. As the film progresses, the presence of the camera impinges more and more upon the action – to the extent that the major narrative event of David’s girlfriend leaving him is a direct consequence of his overzealous filmmaking. The goal of depicting unmediated, documentary reality is debunked as a utopian project.
David Holzman’s Diary is both a fictional film about eight days in the life of David Holzman, and a documentary about documentaries.