Telling the Truth in ‘David Holzman’s Diary’ and Bruce Conner’s ‘Report.’

David Holzman

Bruce Conner’s Report (1967) and Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967) both appeared in a year when cynicism about the media, politics, and the Vietnam War were high and cultural shifts were taking place all over the globe.  The Kennedy assassination had shocked the country just four years before, and the growth of an underground press engendered views of traditional news media as puppets of the establishment.  So it’s no surprise that questions of “truth” were percolating in the works of writers, artists, and filmmakers of the decade.  David Holzman’s Diary and Report represent two films that examine the meaning of truth, and what it means to tell the truth in an age of anxiety, cynicism and change.   In my examination of these two films – and the (often radically) different methods their makers use to tell the truth in them – I will look at the ways in which they both express their ideas of truth through their different methodologies, the cultural context out of which both films emerged, and the use and roles of the camera and technology in the films.

In David Holzman’s Diary, Jim McBride creates a “mockumentary,” a parody of the so-called vérité documentaries that had begun to appear at the beginning of the decade, first in France and later in the United States.  Through parody, McBride accuses these films of not only taking themselves too seriously, but of actually obstructing the truth rather than exposing it. Cameras may be mechanical, he seems to be saying, but they are also subjective and all is subject to a documentarian’s bias. The film begins with the fictional filmmaker David Holzman pretentiously quoting Godard: “Film is truth 24 times per second,” and thus begins down a road that he hopes will reveal the “truth” about his messed-up life.  Almost everything he does for the rest of the film reveals to the audience (if not to himself,) in scene after scene, that personal redemption through trying to capture the truth is simply not possible.  Shortly after he “introduces” his camera, David effuses “I can stop it when I want to” and almost in the same breath, “I can get it all [on camera],” never realizing the contradiction (i.e. that if you can “stop it when you want to,” you are not “getting it all,” but editorializing.)  David is almost childlike in his obsession with his camera, and one incongruous scene is devoted entirely to him showing off and playing with his new fisheye lens.  In this scene, McBride, the real filmmaker, points out the masturbatory narcissism of documentary filmmakers by presenting the fictional filmmaker (Holzman) as childish and self-indulgent.  Later in the film, McBride makes this analogy to masturbation quite clear by having David sitting on is bed telling his camera/audience that (actual) masturbation is “the real stuff…you can thing of anything, trains, bagels.”  The filmmaker seems to be saying that in the end, most documentary films that purport to reveal a “truth” is all masturbation and only one version of the truth is revealed, usually one revealing the filmmaker’s narcissism.Perhaps the most interesting scene in David Holzman’s Diary is the one in which David’s friend scolds him for thinking that he could ever reveal the truth in a documentary.  This seemed like a moment in which McBride was dropping the veil of satire and speaking directly to the audience.  Holzman’s friend calls the script “bad” and both David and his girlfriend Penny “boring.” “You’re not going to understand your life better by putting it on celluloid and looking at it over and over,” he says to the camera.  This seems to be the crux of what McBride is trying to get at with David Holzman’s Diary – the fact that, by definition, a film can only record “half-truths, and that may be worse than a lie.”

In Report, Bruce Conner uses a tactic very different from McBride’s.  Instead of revealing truth by constructing a fictional narrative that pokes holes in the very idea of truth, Conner inundates us with media reports of the Kennedy assassination, using radio reports and clips of the Zapruder film, which I imagine audiences in the 60’s had seen ad nauseum.  Report exposes media representations of official truths for what they are – constructed narratives.  He achieves this by juxtaposing news reports and shots of the presidential motorcade with clips that represent heroism (a bullfighter riding into the ring), middle class complacency (ads for brand new refrigerators,) and through repetition designed to recontextualize the reports in a way that will jar us from the way we habitually see them and allow us to see them anew.  Conner’s film is less a straight narrative, and more the work of a visual artist – like a painting that has come to life.

In terms of their methods, the two films may seem almost to stand almost opposite of each other – David Holzman’s Diary uses satire and fiction to expose a truth about “Truth,” and Conner reveals the fiction of “Official Truth” by recontextualizing real news reports and found footage.  But the ultimate messages of the two films don’t seem so different – both encourage a healthy skepticism of what is presented as truth, encouraging audiences to think critically about both the messages they are being fed by the media, and just as importantly, the media through which the messages are delivered. The two films also use related, if dissimilar methods of storytelling.  It’s been said that parody, the technique used by McBride, is a dialogue between two voices – that of the parodist humorously questioning the second voice, the “original” it mocks (Jones 130) – in this case documentary film.  While Conner’s film certainly isn’t a parody, it also speaks with two voices – that of the artist who is commenting on the material he presents, and the voice of the media itself.    The two filmmakers also employ similar techniques to accentuate the “truth” or authenticity of the film.  In both films, film leader shown in the middle of the films reminds us constantly that we are watching a media representation, or an interpretation of an event, not the event itself.  In the case of David Holzman’s Diary, this technique seems to be one employed by David – perhaps even in a way that mocks artists like Conner – not by the actual filmmaker.   Also, both McBride (or, Holzman) and Conner use the method of displaying a blank screen while only the audio is heard, making the audiences focus on what is being said, as opposed to the audio being simply a narration of the visual images.  Again, while in McBride’s film this technique has the desired effect, it’s possible that this, too, is simply an element of the satire.

Having been made in the same year, both films emerged from and reference a similar cultural context. Post-Kennedy trauma, anxiety about Vietnam, and a nation in cultural crisis are all themes that add texture to both David Holzman’s Diary and Report via representations of media reports of the day.  As David takes us on a tour of his Upper West Side neighborhood in David Holzman’s Diary, we hear strains of The Doors, juxtaposed with news reporting deaths in Vietnam and New Jersey.  Similarly, Conner employs radio reports of the Kennedy assassination, adding to the feeling of immediacy in the film, as well as demonstrating the dramatic arc this story took – juxtaposing live-coverage of the shooting with the more somber aftermath.

The role of the camera – and technology in general – is critical to the idea of truth telling in both films, each emphasizes and anthropomorphizes technology in different ways.   In David Holzman’s Diary, David almost fetishizes his camera, his first love, which he introduces before even his girlfriend, calling it “my friend… my eyes” (by contrast, he introduces his girlfriend as “vain, dirty and sloppy.”)  In this one line, he defines his camera as both a discrete character and an extension of himself.   Throughout the film, the camera continues to act as a “character,” one that watches, pries and intrudes.  By the end of the film, David has lost the differentiation between technology and humanity altogether as he shouts at his camera, “YOU made me do things,” and “YOU haven’t told me anything!”   Despite his reliance on the camera to reveal the truth about his life, it only ends up getting in the way.   David’s girlfriend Penny is extremely uncomfortable on film, despite David’s admonishments to “ignore the camera.”  As a result, in this case the camera has actually disrupted the telling of truth, as we never get a “true” picture of Penny at all.  Finally, in his exploitation of the movie camera as his “eyes,” David reveals an often-disturbing voyeurism.  He secretly films the girl across the street through her window, records Penny as she sleeps naked on his bed (a reference to Warhol’s 1963 film, Sleep?) and in one scene “the camera” follows a strange woman out of the subway until she turns around and tells him to “beat it.”   The truths revealed in this way are not the ones David intends, but disturbing truths about himself and about the nature of filmmaking.

In Report, a film in which the filmmaker never “filmed” at all, the role of the camera still has a voyeuristic aspect, but in this case the voyeur is the audience, the American public, not the filmmaker.   Conner repeats a single image of the Kennedy motorcade passing several times, which not only divorces the image it from its habitual, expected context, but also seems to reference America’s voyeuristic fascination with the event.  Not having lived in 1963, I can only imagine that the media coverage following the assassination was much like watching CNN in the months following the 9/11 tragedy.  After the latter event, we were inundated with the same photos and videos of the tragedy over and over again.  The media weren’t entirely to blame for this – we wanted to see those images, and some of us sat in front of the TV ingesting them for days, weeks, and months at a time.   Instead of the camera being the eyes of the filmmaker as is McBride’s fictional artist – Conner is the “eyes” of his camera – he, the artist, decides what you see, crafting a new story out of the very same images from which, originally, a very different story was told.

Both films also portray television images as a means to tell their stories. In Report, TV images are virtually the only ones we see.  The bulk of the film is a presentation of television images that were actually broadcast by the media during the Kennedy assassination, juxtaposed with other media representing the cultural zeitgeist of postwar, space-age America. In this way, Conner tries to expose a greater truth (albeit a subjective one) that probes deeper than anything reported by the media, which he uses as source material.  McBride’s use of TV is limited to one scene in which he presents an entire evening of TV watching in 2 minutes by recording a single frame from each shot on the TV, giving us an almost psychedelic cross section of the day’s media.   Aside from this scene, in David Holzman’s Diary, radio and TV are bit players while in Conner’s film they are the stars. Both however, make powerful statements about the media.  Both films utilize advertising as well, providing a cultural reference in which to embed their messages.

Both David Holzman’s Diary and Report represent the unique methods of two filmmakers used to expose their personal ideas about truth through very different methods.  While McBride’s film is mainly a commentary on the idea of truth itself, Conner’s is trying to uncover a truth that he feels certain is hidden beneath the artificiality of the media.  To me, however, it’s the similarities that are the most striking.  The artists both succeed in making their points by creatively using the same technology that they criticize, showing us that technology and media are a double-edged sword, and in both cases the warning is clear: be wary, and critical, of what you see, and what you believe to be “the truth.”

Works Cited

Conner, Bruce. Report. 1967

Jones, Jeffrey P.  Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture.
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 2005.

McBride, Jim. David Holzman’s Diary. Perf. L.M. Kit Carson, Eileen Dietz.
Paradigm Films, 1967.

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