Moving Diaries

James McBride's Film of David Holzman's Diary

Ben Howell Davis

Copyright, 1988.

It is a hot summer night. I'm twenty.

I am walking home from a friend's darkroom with a tray of black and white photographs I have just finished printing. The tray is half full of water and it is sloshing over the pictures onto the sidewalk. I've been printing images taken by casually throwing a 35mm camera up to my eye at moments when I have been waiting. Waiting for the bus, waiting for someone to come back to the car from a store, waiting to get into a movie. As I walk along I am filled with the joy that I am alone with my work.

It's warm, summer. Falling in love is possible.

Walking down the street, I see at some distance either an acquaintance or a close friend. In my mind I run through the catalog of references for this person. I remember a name, a list of recent events connected to that name. I must decide whether I want to: talk to them, just say hello, cross the street to avoid them, pass on a message from some mutual friend, think of something funny to say.

I am still turning over these alternatives when at next glance I realize the person is a complete stranger. A fleeting resemblance has triggered my excitment or paranoia. Whoever I had in mind has disappeared. I am left with a sense of ridiculous grief, embarrased to look closer at the stranger.

The Good Fairy Tale

The moral of this story, the moral of this song is "one should simply never be where one does not belong."

                                   Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, from John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan.


No one is supposed to ever see "the making of a fairy tale" because you will always be in the wrong place seeing the wrong things. Irony is the given. All film is fairy tale, all experience relative.

The moral of James McBride's David Holzman's Diary is this: Once you get there, there's no there there. (Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, McGraw-Hill, NYC, 1933.) There is no David Holzman, there is no Diary. In true Proustian fashion we have " ...a work of art representing as its subject the circumstances and vagaries of its own creation and the origin of its form." (Marcel Proust, Roger Shattuck, Viking Press, NYC, 1974.) When the narrator, sometimes David, sometimes McBride, sometimes audio/film camera, tells us that what is about to unfold is a 'fairy tale" the audience is being told to witness the spatialization of time, the hyper-document. And what time is it?

It's Bastille Day (July 14), 1967, New York City: US at war with Southeast Asia, race riots, draft evasion, sexual revolutions, decaying cities, demonstrations, hallucinations.

David Holzman, the fictional author, filmmaker, and star explains his predicament by telling us in the first minutes of the film: "Stop your labor in vain and bring yourself into focus, expose yourself." He is cutting a Faustian "deal", attempting to have the pleasure of saying "moment stay" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, 1808.) by "putting my thumb" on the film and arresting "the meaning I can't quite get". Applying Godard's adage that "film is truth twenty four times a second", David begins his search.

The fictional documentary form, however, reverses figure and ground. The events that ordinarily would form the background for David's character are themselves the main attractions. He is talking to the film, not himself or the audience when he says "stop your labor in vain". David is an illusion within an illusion. His moral for the story is written in water: (Keat's epitaph reads "One Whose Life Was Writ In Water"). The act of watching is the reality.

James McBride's moral for the tale might be stated as "history is an inventory of fiction." (Fredrick Sommer, Small Conspiracies, 1970.) Applying this moral to the function of film, McBride is describing a subtle sphere of self-consciousness:, as function, is an hysterical activity (the cinema do not consist of animating images; the opposition of photography and film is not that of the fixed and the mobile image; cinema consists not in figuring, but in a system's being made to function.

Roland Barthe: Sade, Fourier, Loyola, NYC: Hill and Wang, 1976, pg. 154.

Everything in the film depends on imminent behavior.

As events are strung together by simple cuts (the technique might be called "draft" form), McBride shows us the rushes, makes us "review" the progress of the film rather than simply watching it. We are drawn in by David but we are supported by McBride. Every off-hand gesture, every casual set, every time David reaches at the camera to adjust it, shut it off, turn it on, is scripted. Blowing into a microphone, spontaniously shooting out the window, thinking up an idea - every detail is a piece of credibility syntax.

One of the less obvious techniques he uses is making us believe that the camera is recording both sound and picture simultaneously. We believe, for instance, that the radio in David's car just happens to be tuned into the news as we are given a tour of New York architecture early in the film, or that the sound on the slow-motion sequence of the elderly on park benches is ambient (it is really a tape loop of role calls at the United Nations). The auditory world of the film is composed, orchestrated to give the feel of truth to the documentary form.

McBride is working much like Borges in "The Circular Ruins" which tells the story of a man who discovers that his life consists of, or enacts, the dreams of another more powerful human consciousness, on which is he therefore entirely dependent. (Shattuck, Marcel Proust, pg. 150.) But McBride is also the interrogator. He is questioning the boundaries of irony. He is asking if there may be Truth in representation.

His conclusion seems to be a bit like the an old Norse legend:

Thor made a circle around the Middle-earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the circle occupied by Gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of the trolls, got him in an armlock, and demanded to know of him how order might triumph over chaos. "Give me your left eye," said the king of the trolls, "and I'll tell you." Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. "Now tell me". The troll said, "The secret is, WATCH WITH BOTH EYES!"

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, Basic Books, Inc. NYC, 1977, pg.3.

Ironic Postures

Do the best of subversions consist in disfiguring codes, not in destroying them?

R.Barthe: Sade, Fourier, Loyola, pg. 123.

The screen is black and David is telling us about watching Penny sleep. He is saying something about how it reminds him of a glass room at the Smithsonian and that everything is perfect. The image pops onto the screen. It is Penny lying nude on a bed with bright lights pointed at her. The camera moves in and out, following the conturs of her body, lingering on the finger she has childishly stuck in her mouth. She wakes up and rushes at the camera.

On first viewing this scene I was struck by how simple it was to use the black screen and audio as a modern equivalent of the explanatory card used in silent pictures, ie; "Penny is sleeping. Everthing is perfect." Then the camera "wakes up" and we see Penny as if we are really voyeurs and Penny is really sleeping. The blazing camera lights tell us Penny's awake, acting.

What all of McBride's characters are doing in this film is "over-acting". I mean this in the sense that their behavior is looped. They are acting like they are in a documentary; ie, they are acting like they are not acting but attempting to overcome self-consciousness. They are working at representations that are over, that is, above acting. Painfully matched to the formal quality of the medium, they are the particular forms with which we empathetically identify but their primary status are as representatives of spatialized time. In other, less clincal terms, they are vehicles for moving through irony.

David's friend Pepe exhibits another ironic gesture as he stands in front of a bad social-realist mural telling us that his (David's) life is not a very good script. The social-realist saying the ordinary life is bad cinema! The comedy here is so subtle! We don't know if he's the artist who painted the picture but his accent makes us believe he's Cuban like the flag in the painting! When Pepe is talking about himself he stands in front of the image of a man, when he talks about truth he stands in front of symbols (flag, etc), when he talks about magic he stands in front of a butterfly. He says half-truths are worse than lies and sits down so that the painted lightning bolt comes out of his head. This aesthetics vs. morality monologue has a third world vaudeville look to it, like a song and dance man in front of a backdrop. It oozes social irresponsibilty with almost black (its still working even as I write) humor.

These are two distinct modes of irony. The scene with Penny is a visual joke. Now you hear about it, now you see it - but not really. She is not nude, she is wearing the film. The scene with Pepe (I have gotten his name from Wanda Bershen's article and I think she must have gotten it from Carson and McBride's book because I swear I don't remember it in the film) (L.M. Kit Carson and James McBride, David Holzman's Diary, Farrar,Straus,Giroux, NYC,1970.) is literary irony. This figure/ground relationship reverses itself on key words like truth, magic, reality, etc.

A character acts on the screen and is assumed to see the world a certain way. But simultaneously the camera see him, and his world, from another point of view which thinks, reflects and transforms the viewpoint of the character.

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, pg. 74.

A third kind of irony in the film is generated by audio. Besides the previously mentioned use of audio as authentication device, McBride extends our experience outside of David's apartment by filming telephone calls. He lets us see an acoustic experience. Only an audio/visual medium is capable of this kind of irony.. Penny asks over the phone " Are you filming?" David is silent, the film is silent. David calls up S. Schwartz "Sondra? Shirley? Sarah?" and we see her across the way hanging up. The answering service in a phone booth (the perfect set for filmed phone calls) says "She doesn't want you to call anymore" or don't make a movie of my voice. The gesture of David putting a microphone up to the telephone receiver is the visual equivalent of the literal definition of "see what I mean". As McLuhan has said, David is "exhanging an eye for an ear." (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Viking Press, 1965.)

The irony machine in this film is camera/audio gear. The initial catalog of still photos from manuals and ads of sound and camera equipment (another irony here-stills of motion tools) is like looking at family snapshots. Here's my little brother the lavalier microphone. When the whole family is attached to David's body he has accumlated artificial memory. He is collector man.

Camera as Character

Remember what it was like to be sung to sleep...The repeated lines of words and music are circular and the rings they make are linked together like those of a chain. You walk along these paths and are led by them in circles which lead from one to the other, further and further away. The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song.

John Berger, About Seeing, Pantheon Books, 1980, pg.192.

McBride's sensitivity to the camera as character is a little like HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Only in David Holzman's Diary the artificial memory of the camera is actually creating the film. Had 2001 been a computer animation we might equate them. What begins as science, the physics of film if you will, ends as metaphysics. The camera is neither irony nor metaphor. It is perceptual simulator, the singer and the song. Like Berger's circular paths above, David Holzman's Diary is a string of events interwoven by camera changes.

A simple catalog of images may be in order. These images may be out of sequence somewhat but they serve to give a record of the different changes in the concept of "camera-life".

The first thing the camera sees in the film is a television set in a store window. The camera, as itself, sees the product of another camera, the first self-referent image. We then proceed to David's apartment, he looks into the lens briefly, delivers his "labor in vain" soliloquy, the camera looks into a mirror, and we see David seated, telling us about the "deal". (It is important to remember that the camera appears to be recording audio simultaniously. No audio dubbing is apparently taking place. The camera sees and hears, images are both pictorial and acoustic.)

The camera then records its own birth. We see the still photos of it from manuals and magazines. It weighs 18 pounds we are told.

Throughout the film David will use the gesture of reaching toward the lens to adjust, turn on, and off the camera to establish himself as controlling the device.

The environmental portrait frame of David talking to us through the camera seated in front of a mirror, the camera reflected. This image is to some degree the camera as us and the camera as itself. We are returned to this image when David is confused and has no point of view.

The slow motion sequence of the neighborhood with gossip and architecture gives us the camera as documentary tool. The camera is at once David's companion, our guide, and showing itself off as a versatile machine capable of doing slow-motion picture and real time audio simultaneously - the first indication that, technically, things are funny.

Dream tool: Slow motion of people on the street with David telling us stories about his neighbors. Its an unreal hallucination. The camera drugged by David.

The camera as David's memory shows us photos of Penny, all around the environment and close-up, "see that little circle of dirt"? He is still showing us and the camera artifacts.

Camera as confidant: "I love Penny." David now begins to tell us and the camera intimate information. We are drawn in. We may hear something real, something spontanious. The camera may now be interviewing David about things we haven't thought of asking him ourselves.

The camera as irritating, obsessive companion possibly out of David's control. Penny, " I'm not dressed, please stop it." David and the camera team up to be equally insensitive.

Pepe in front of painted back drop, the camera, like a theater prop, hangs out on the set. David must be told to shut it off.

The camera as voyeur: Sondra out the window. The camera does what it wants to, it looks at things that can't see it. This image of the forbidden use of the camera is central to the "plot". The suggestion of pornography, the snuff film, the possiblity of the "pleasure of the voyeur turned to pain" (Duane Michaels, Photographs, Lustrum Press, 1974.) are all conjured up in these images of watching S. Schwartz. This is the "deal" with the devil in the machine. David has crossed the boundry of taste now, this could be a "dirty movie". If we continue to watch we are accomplices, the camera is now our companion too. We are totally helpless to control it and totally seduced to continue "watching".

The TV show collage is again the camera flexing its technical muscles. (Interesting to note this "Day in the Life" of broadcast media couldn't possibily be every scene as David claims.) Also the final chord of the Beatle's "Day in the Life" from Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is later heard in a voyeur sequence with Sondra. David is now hanging out with the camera and watching TV. Culture is just a shot away.

Camera as interviewer: Street goddess in T-Bird. This interview is different than the one with his artist pal. The man-on-the-street technique is like the evening news. The content is verbal porno. David and the camera are hanging out on the street now. The camera wants to get laid, David doesn't.

The fish-eye lens is David's last chance to have fun with his instrument. Its got a new mask and he's showing it off around the neighborhood. As if the camera is a new car he drives us to the phone booth for the final goodbye.

The scene with the bleeding bum on the street has got to be real.

Camera as rapist: woman on the subway. This scene is the climax for me.

Camera as ghost. The end of the film and the camera is stolen yet the film goes on. What's going on here?

The camera is never quite one thing or the other. It is always a combination of personalities. It forms the chain of linked images of the lullaby. We are lulled into a filmic sleep by its shifts and moods. It never leaves the film even when its only a memory.



We see a woman's face. It is reflected in a window. We are on the subway. Underground on a train. We see the interior of the car. The woman is seated across from us. She is trying not to look at the camera. The train comes to its station. The camera rises from its seat. It pans across a poster on the wall. It is Penny.

In the private use of photography, the context of the instant recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives in an ongoing continuity...The public photograph by contrast, is torn from its context, and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use.

Berger, About Looking, pg.56.

Now we are completely drawn in. We are co-conspirators. We are about to rape. We follow her off the subway, up the stairs the street. Only the sound of footfalls. We are hunting, doing murder. Is this Sondra? No. Its a perfect stranger. A substitute for Penny. We are out of control. We chase her across a little park. Closing in on attack/attraction, public/private, pure neuroticism coming to the pyschotic, hopeless, tasteless, blatent. No dialogue with real ambient sound, we are coming close to real violence. Time has come. Camera, character, audience are one. The tyrannny of circumstance has us in its grip. The film is forcing its resolution. Penny is a dead photo opportunity, the story is over. We are the rush. The lens is close to her face, she turns in slow-motion and she says "beat it" into a freeze frame. Nothing has happened. It's another fake moment, another actress, another movie. The camera's at eye level, mindless, a pathetic robot that started out sitting and ends up running to a snap shot.

McBride pours on the cliches. It's a train, it's a chase scene, it's an old girlfriend/perfect stranger, it's grainy, it's crazy. It's a climax.


As Berger so aptly puts it, "the public photograph torn from its context..lends itself to arbitrary use". The Diary has gone public, a dead object. Just when we thought we had a geniune narrative the film runs out. David fumbles through some dumb ending about looking in Penny's window and getting roughed up by some cops (see that little band aid when he's talking about his dead uncle? Sure your uncle died, Dave!) Sure the camera got stolen, we believe you. Anything to see how this ends.

What else, in retrospect of course, could McBride do except have a climax as the climax? This sequence seems to represent, to me anyway, the real genius of the film - to include its own tragic flaw. Not only is nothing believable after this scene, but we don't care. Even if we haven't consciously realized the film is over, McBride has carefully planned our final moments.

Take a look at these 25 cent photos - better yet make a 25 cent record and put them together - anybody can do it! Sound and pictures - what an idea!

And the credits. Aren't they an important part of a film? Or do you get up to leave before they're over? These are important credits because David Holzman has another name.


Roland Barthe; Sade, Fourier, Loyola, published by Hill and Wang, NYC, 1976.

John Berger, About Looking, Pantheon Books, NYC, 1980.

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1, The Movement Image, Athlone Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1986.

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, Basic Books, NYC, 1977.

Roger Shattuck, Marcel Proust, Viking Press, NYC, 1974.