When many people think about found footage, the first thing they think is, “horror.” But the crazy thing is that the first found footage film was not a horror. It was a satirical comedy called David Holzman’s Diary (1967), starring L. M. Kit Carson and directed by Jim McBride.
Unfortunately, a lot of the satire behind the movie is going to get lost on a new generation because the thing it was poking fun of is no longer in vogue. But here’s a little background into it in case you’re wondering what it’s all about.
In the 1960s, there was the rise of so-called “cinéma vérité,” a genre of movie that was all about capturing real life. Although it was well meaning, it devolved into a pseudo-intellectual, pretentious genre. Filmmakers really began feeling that somehow, they were going to be able to use their cameras to discover truths about the meaning of life and maybe even reality itself.
In David Holzman’s Diary, the main character is one of these burgeoning filmmakers who’s become enamored with Francois Truffaut, the granddaddy of cinéma vérité. His idea is that just like Truffaut, he’s going to use his camera to film his every day life in a way that’s going to help him understand his life.
As you can expect, David is ever the optimistic dipstick when he first starts shooting. He chatters away, talking about where he lives and rambles on about Truffaut and his philosophy. But then thinks start to go south when he tries to film the people closest to him. His friend, Pepe, isn’t going to have any of it and starts dressing him down on camera, telling him why this project of his is nothing more than a self-important, pretentious exercise. Pepe also reminds David that by virtue of this all being on film, David will do everything he can to not only censor his life on camera but arrange everything in a way to make his film look good.
David doesn’t get the memo and continues shooting, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Penny. Not surprisingly, he takes things a bit too far and before he knows it, she walks out on him. David continues his mission to capture his life on camera with the smugness that he’ll be able to keep doing it even as his life begins falling apart. Then something happens in the end that completely ends both David’s film project and pretentious cinéma vérité ambitions for good.
David Holzman’s Diary isn’t perfect by many means and in fact, it kind of goes off the rails midway through, albeit in a way that’s entertaining. (There’s a very bizarre segment where a horny, middle aged woman keeps propositioning David and asking for graphic details about his penis.) However, the movie is worth watching because of its historical significance in being the very first found footage ever made. Even if you couldn’t care less about any of that, it’s still worth a watch, in my opinion, because it makes a perfect companion piece to Michael Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), a movie that poked holes in a similar pretentious movement that was happening in the world of photography.