It hasn't been a good start to the week for David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson). First he loses his job, then he gets a letter from the Draft Board, but the aspiring filmmaker has an idea: he will make the film of his life, literally. The first scene is shot in the editing suite in his apartment as Holzman outlines, in a roundabout way, his reasons for making the film and what he hopes to achieve with it, but what it all boils down to is taking his camera and sound recording equipment everywhere he goes and filming whatever interests him. This could be his increasingly moody girlfriend Penny (Eileen Deitz), or simply people and notable buildings on the streets of New York, but Holzman soon realises that his intentions might not be enough.
David Holzman's Diary was intended as a send up, if not an exploration, of the cinéma vérité genre, that style where handheld cameras and the appearance of being as natural and immediate as possible was paramount in the filming process. It was conceived by director Jim McBride, who would rehearse his small cast until he felt it was time to turn the camera on and they would then interpret his ideas, such was the paltry amount of film they had to work with, but the result really does look spontaneous. It was not filmed by Holzman, or Carson, but Michael Wadleigh (here credited as Wadley), who would go onto direct one of the biggest documentaries of the era in Woodstock.
It may be obviously low budget, but that adds to the ring of truth about the project, however manufactured it was. It can be seen as prescient, looking forward to these days where it seems everyone wants to record their lives extensively, whether it's on home movies or an internet blog, and its protagonist is no less self obsessed. In fact, he's something of a frustrating figure to watch, verging on the obnoxious which Penny notices when he begins, for instance, whipping out his camera while she sleeps naked in his bed and making sure his lens gets a good look at her body until she wakes up and furiously makes him turn it off.
A lot of the film is shot on the streets, and Holzman has a large measure of the nosey parker in him. Witness the way he spies on the woman who lives across the street from him, turning himself into a voyeur - for his work or his personal pleasure? And what about the woman he follows from the subway out into the city until she wheels round and orders him to "beat it!"? Some of it resembles a genuine historical record, as when he films the night of television he watches, taking a shot every time the scene changes and so preserving an evening that includes Star Trek and Batman and a load of advertising speeding by. But really it's a hollow exercise, as it gradually dawns on him that his film, and his life, are going nowhere and simply because a subject can be filmed it doesn't make it worthwhile. Finally, he's not as interesting as he thinks he is. All that and not a cow in sight - not even a glass of milk!