At the end of the ’60s, there came a little burst of self-reflexive films from the first generation of young Americans raised staring at screens—in the den, at the movies—now trying to process the relationships between those screens and the world outside.
Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart and Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! were superlative peepshows, but first came David Holzman’s Diary, the 16mm confessional of a young New York cinephile recording life as lived in his West 71st Street walkup and surrounding precincts, from the 14th to the 22nd of July, 1967. Holzman is newly unemployed and drafted, Newark burns not far off, and his girlfriend and would-be Anna Karina squirms away when he tries to photograph her soul. Between monologues, Holzman digresses with inspiration, taking a neighborhood tour with his new fisheye, compressing an evening’s television into a flashing stream of single frames (those incessant screens . . .), and retreating behind his lens from the come-ons of a two-packs-a-day nympho cruising in her Thunderbird.
“David Holzman,” the closing credits betray, never lived off-camera. He’s a collaborative conspiracy, created with “structured improvisations,” $2,500, and five days of principal shooting, by actor L.M. Kit Carson and 26-year-old tyro director Jim McBride, star of this week’s Anthology Film Archives retrospective. The nympho in the Thunderbird, however, was real.
Holzman’s a classic character, a sympathetic-if-pathetic study in generational solipsism, delivering imported French lyricism in clunky flatlands American—miscast by himself in his own life. Diary‘s rug-pull “documentary” serves to second-guess Holzman/McBride’s contemporaries and inspirations, “noted French wit” J.-L. Godard’s “truth at 24 frames per second,” the vérité of cinema vérité. The great deflation comes via David’s friend, who delivers a comic homily on the basic impossibility of catching unmediated life on celluloid.
Diary didn’t have anything approaching a proper theatrical run until 1973, by which point Jean-Pierre Léaud had played a less-affectionate Holzman type in Last Tango in Paris. The film remains more discussed than seen—though a U.K. DVD release may represent a change—and Holzman’s name is better recognized than McBride’s, who afterward dispensed with the scrim of alter ego in docs My Girlfriend’s Wedding and Pictures From Life’s Other Side, both home-movie studies in bohemian fecklessness, observing his English girlfriend through a green-card wedding, pregnancy scare, and cross-country trek.
Forgotten features came and went, too. Glen and Randa (1971) deserves a mini-cult for its uniquely pastoral post-apocalypse America (a contrast to the zero-hour SoCal in co-screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer’s novel Quake). Hot Times, released to hostile silence in 1974, was McBride’s last film for nearly a decade. In the meantime, he wrote a script (with Carson; unfilmed) from Walker Percy’s 1961 The Moviegoer—the allure of protagonist Binx Bolling, film buff and blasé spectator of his own life, is obvious enough.
And then McBride actually thrived in the ’80s. Given his experimental bent and a restructured, corporatized industry, this was only slightly less likely than Monte Hellman signing on to direct Cobra. There was The Big Easy (a good showcase for Ellen Barkin’s carnal smirk) and a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, Great Balls of Fire! (gelt and plasticine to anyone who’s read Nick Tosches’s Hellfire). The only representation of this period at Anthology, and the best of the batch, is the transposition of Godard’s Breathless to pastel-and-neon L.A. of 1983. French softcore sexpot Valérie Kaprisky replaces Jean Seberg and the Belmondo role goes to Richard Gere. His pelvic-seizuring Benzedrine-bopper, Jesse, is an absurdly conspicuous fugitive who only hotwires vintage rides (including a James Dean Porsche Spyder), learns love from Silver Surfer comics, and almost blends in with Venice Beach murals. McBride’s Breathless has been freely maligned, but it’s happily audacious in returning Godard’s transatlantic serve, and actually gives its female lead an emotional existence beyond fulfilling a femme fatale construct. The stars are rarely uninhibited and tangibly hot for each other, and every element of the movie jams responsively with the soundtrack. I’d rather re-watch it than À bout de soufflé about 9 times out of 10.