This essay was originally written as liner notes for a DVD released in 2006 in the U.K. by Second Run, an excellent label. (This DVD can be obtained here—a site well worth checking out for other films as well.) My thanks to Mehelli Modi for commissioning this piece as well as for allowing me to reprint it, both here and in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I’m delighted, incidentally, that Lorber Kino’s recent DVD release of these films also includes not only My Girlfriend’s Wedding and Pictures from Life’s Other Side, but also McBride’s wonderful recent short, My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law (2008). — J.R.
In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one. — Abbas Kiarostami
Artifact #1: A softcover book, The Film Director as Superstar (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday & Co.,1970)—-a collection of 16 interviews in three parts, each of
which has two subsections: “The Outsiders” (”Beyond the Underground,” “Their
Own Money, Their Own Scene”), “The European Experience” (”The Underemployed
Independent,” “The Socialist Film Schools”), and “Free Agents Within the System”
(”Transitional Directors,” “Independents with Muscle”).
Offering a good sense of what was seen as edgy filmmaking 35 years ago,
Gelmis singled out Arthur Penn, Richard Lester, Mike Nichols, and Stanley Kubrick
as his muscular independents and Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola as his
transitional figures. Milos Forman and Roman Polanski were his two graduates of the
socialist film schools, Lindsay Anderson and Bernardo Bertolucci his two underemployed
The three with their own money were Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes
(the latter was seen on the book’s cover, camera in hand). And the three who were beyond
the underground? Jim McBride, Brian DePalma, and Robert Downey. All three eventually
wound up in Hollywood —- like virtually everyone else in Gelmis’s lineup, apart from
Mailer and Warhol —- though it seems sadly emblematic that Downey is best known today
for his actor son with the same name while McBride in probably best known for his 1983
U.S. remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
One reason for citing all these strange bedfellows now is to convey some sense of where
McBride stood at the time, on the basis of the two legendary films, his first two,
included on this DVD–neither of which has ever had a normal theatrical distribution
anywhere, apart from alimited release of David Holzman’s Diary in Paris. Yet in spite
of this limited exposure, the interview with McBride is not only the first in Gelmis’s book,
but one of the most substantial.
In a way, this shouldn’t be too surprising, because when we speak about the impact of influential works in art cinema, whether it’s Citizen Kane or the original Breathless, we’re speaking more about the quality of the response than about the quantity of respondents. However personal some of its origins might be, David Holzman’s Diary is in fact a great work of synthesis summarizing the very notions of the film director as subject (and therefore as superstar) and the camera as tool of self-scrutiny that the 60s film explosion inspired. And its ambiguities about the various crossovers between documentary and fiction remain as up to date as the films of Kiarostami.
Artifact #2: Another softcover book from the same year, David Holzman’s Diary: A Screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson from a Film by Jim McBride(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970). This is an even more flagrant case ofrelatively unseen “underground” work being heralded by a mainstream publisher. The title’s a bit confusing, because in fact the film was made without a screenplay and Carson is crediting himself with an after-the-fact transcription and description. Its dialogue was basically written (when it was written) on a scene by scene basis, by McBride working with either Carson, the lead actor playing David Holzman, or Lorenzo Mans aka Pepe, in the latter’s own extended dialogue. (Shot in front of Mans’ own Cuban mural, this is in many ways the most provocative scene in the film, as well as the funniest. Given that Mans’ own apartment at the time was serving as David Holzman’s, his influence and impact on the film probably shouldn’t be restricted to this sequence; he later served as the main screenwriter on McBride’s first relatively big-budget feature, the 1971 Glen and Randa.) But the frank sexual talk from the lady in the Thunderbird–actually a transsexual who’d recently undergone a sex-change operation -— was 100% impromptu, including the offscreen questions and comments from David, who at this point was being impersonated by the film’s cameraman, Michael Wadley. (Incidentally, during the same year that artifacts #1 and 2 were published, Wadley–who also shot Martin Scorsese’s first feature the same year as David Holzman, and My Girlfriend’s Wedding two years later —- released his own first film, Woodstock, now spelling his surname Wadleigh.)
Artifact #3: David Holzman’s Diary (the film, 1967). One of the first and best of the great pseudo-documentaries, sometimes known nowadays as mockumentaries—-and certainly one of the cleverest to be made in the 60s after Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965)—-McBride’s first film is still quite capable of fooling unsuspecting viewers almost 40 years later, in part through the effectiveness of Carson’s performance, and despite a contradictory ending which logically should (yet in fact generally doesn’t) give the whole fictional game away, just before the final credits. (The story ends with Holzman losing his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade—-though how these abject substitutes are still conveyed to us on film is left unexplained.)
The film shares an important trait with the early French New Wave features of Godard, François Truffaut, and Jacques Rivette that helped to inspire it by growing out of cinephilia and film criticism. Specifically, it drew part of its stimulus from a never-completed book that McBride and Carson were researching for the Museum of Modern Art about cinéma-vérité by interviewing such figures as Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker, while the more personal and experimental filmmaker Andrew Noren was also providing them with much food for thought. Prior to this, McBride had started a similar film in 1965 with actor Alan Rachins—-who two decades later became a mainstay on the TV show L.A. Law—-that was aborted when the unedited rushes were stolen. So in fact David Holzman grew out of two unfinished projects, and undoubtedly benefited from the many second thoughts that resulted.
Playing with the form of cinéma-vérité while subverting much of the content by making extended portions of it fictional, McBride was emulating the practice of his French models, filming his theory rather than just writing about it. Of course, a good bit of the film is documentary, especially when the camera is roaming around Manhattan in the west 70s. And even when the narrative premises and performances are fictional, the film qualifies as documentary in quite another way—by bearing witness to the mood, preoccupations, and lifestyles of its own epoch. In a similar spirit, Rivette once remarked that D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance today has more to say about 1916 than about any of the historical periods it depicts.
But more generally, David Holzman is an extended meditation on the metaphysical underpinnings of cinéma-vérité and other notions of the camera as a probing instrument, especially in relation to voyeurism and other forms of aggressive sexual appropriation as well as self-scrutiny. (Rear Window and Peeping Tom are both repeatedly evoked–along with the sense of duration and the accompanying sense of existential dread found in many of Warhol’s films.)
Artifact #4: My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969). In many respects, the best “critique” of David Holzman’s Diary that I know is McBride’s 63-minute follow-up to it. Initially conceived as an accompanying short, the film wound up with a running time of only ten minutes shorter, and the distributor of both films promptly went bankrupt, so this DVD may represent the first semi-permanent pairing of the two films. It’s taken a long time, but I think it’s been worth the wait.
Girlfriend’s value as a critique of its predecessor isn’t just because it inverts some of David Holzman’s theoretical premises–by being a real personal documentary with some of the characteristics of a fiction, chronicling McBride’s excited and enraptured discovery of his attractive new girlfriend Clarissa. (”At the time I made it,” he told me when I interviewed him for the French magazine Positif in the early 70s, “I was fond of referring to it as a fiction film, because it was very much my personal idea of what Clarissa was like, and not at all an objective or truthful view.”)
In fact, the dialectic it forms with David Holzman operates on several clearly conscious levels, starting with its possessive title, which is now in the first person, as well as an overt early reference to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (which figured at the very end of the previous film) and a reintroduction of the same Éclair 16 mm camera. The English girlfriend in question, in flight from her upper-class background, is indeed the ostensible focus, as is her irreverent decision to marry a Yippie activist she met only a week ago in order to remain in the states. (Perhaps for legal reasons—which also presumably accounts for some of the blipped-out names—the fact that McBride was married to though separated from someone else at the time goes unmentioned.) But in the very first shot we can also hear and then see McBride as he asks Clarissa to hold up a mirror facing him and Wadley, prompting her until she gets it right—-an apt metaphor for much of what follows. And there’s a similar sense of displacement in the way he asks her to identify the contents of her purse; for much as Holzman loves to inventory his own possessions, including his attractive girlfriend Penny (Eileen Dietz), in front of his own camera, McBride is asking Clarissa to describe her own possessions while implicitly showing her off as a possession of his.
Some of the other rhyme effects between the films are less immediately obvious, but no less telling for that. The counterpart to David’s fragmented record of an entire evening spent watching television —-one frame per shot change adding up to 3,115 separate shots in less than a minute —- is Jim’s far more exuberant home-movie montage chronicling his drive with Clarissa from New York to San Francisco. And this points in turn to a radically redefined relation to both life and politics expressed in the two films. David virtually begins by telling us he just lost his (nameless) job and has been reclassified A-1 by his draft board, but the issue of being unemployed and potentially drafted into the Vietnam war never comes up directly again after that. By contrast, the issue of Clarissa having a job (as a coffeehouse waitress) and the impact of her father’s war experience are discussed at some length, and there’s hardly anything else in the film that isn’t politically inflected. If David Holzman explores how to think about various matters, My Girlfriend’s Wedding fearlessly explores and even proposes how to live.
This is even more true of this film’s 46-minute sequel (or footnote), Pictures from Life’s Other Side (1971), which focuses almost entirely on a later cross-country trip, this one also including Clarissa’s illegitimate, preadolescent son Joe and a couple of dogs, with Clarissa and Joe taking over the commentary and the whole family trading off various sound and camera duties. Funded by an American Film Institute grant, the film was eventually suppressed by the same organization, undoubtedly because of its unabashed countercultural stances —- in particular, one suspects, the occasional nudity of all the family members, including Clarissa in the final stages of her pregnancy with her and Jim’s son Jesse —- so that it remains to this day even more unseeable than its predecessors.
Significantly, the intertitle in My Girlfriend’s Wedding, “Four days later we leave for San Francisco,” refers to Jim and Clarissa but not to Wadley. And because Wadley was left behind on that trip, this segment clearly paves the way for the more family-made Pictures, where McBride’s curiosity in My Girlfriend’s Wedding about what his creative role as director actually consists of becomes even more relevant. Incidentally, Clarissa and the two dogs –- not to mention other members of the McBride tribe, such as Lorenzo Mans and Jack Baran —- are seen once more, this time playing fictional parts, in McBride’s wonderful 1974 sex comedy Hot Times.
Concluding on a personal note: the fact that I’ve known several members of this tribe slightly longer than I’ve known these films probably enhances their value for me, but perhaps not as much as one might expect. I think anyone who watches these works winds up on a first-name basis with most of these people. That’s what continues to make David Holzman’s Diary and My Girlfriend’s Wedding contemporary and vital as well as precious time capsules.