A MURDER has been committed in a Borges story, and the Commissioner has proposed an explanation for it. "It's possible, but not interesting," answers a Talmudic scholar. "You will reply that reality hasn't the slightest need to be of interest. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not."
Most of us harbor the secret suspicion that the drama of private lives is, ultimately, uninteresting. Our personal hypotheses about reality run to the banal, our lives are filled with tedious things, and our hopes to discover startling significances amid the mundane are usually, simply, silly. So instead of introspecting, we look wide-eyed toward realistic art to tell us how a trip to the Stop and Shop, an unpaid Coop bill, and a headache constitute meaningful experience.
But realism, of course, isn't life; it's like life. Nevertheless, looking has become a way of handling living, and the premise lurking behind any trompe l'oeil art-a Wyeth seascape, Anais Nin's diaries, cinema verite , Warhol soup cans-is that we come to grips with experience by scrutinizing a reproduction of it.
The great danger of any imitative art, though, is boredom. Either medium or message must be spruced up, quickened, or else the imitation becomes excruciating. The problem can be handled in several ways. Sometimes it's the experience itself that is in some important way interesting, and the artfulness with which it is recorded becomes secondary (Lady Bird Johnson's White House Diary ); sometimes that relation is inverted, and clever treatment makes dull material zippy ( Cleo from 5 to 7. Warhol's novel-transcription a); sometimes neither event nor method is engaging, and the dismal result is a CBS Miss America pageant, or Windsong.
But in each case, experience is recorded because it's meant to be telling. Cinema is an especially seductive tool of realism because what one gets down in sound and image can (theoretically) be as brutally close, to life or as coolly removed from it as desired. Near the beginning of his movie, David Holzman says,
My life, though ordinary enough, seems to haunt me-in uncommon ways. It seems to come to me-from somewhere else. Someone. And I've been trying to understand it; but it seems that I can't get it. So: the noted French wit Jean-Luc Godard said: "What is film? Film is Truth-twenty-four-times-a-second." So I thought that if I put it all down on film, and I put my thumb on it and I run it back and forth ... And I stop it when I want to, then I got everything. I get it all. I should get it all. Hah: I SHOULD get it all. I should get the meaning. I should understand it. So. This is what this is gonna be. This: I'm going to make a diary.
Things are falling apart for him, and David Holzman's Diary is his way of pinning the humdrum onto celluloid in the hopes of discovering meanings.
THIS DIARY-MOVIE, though made in 1967 and the winner of awards at Mannheim and Brussels, has never before been screened locally. It's aesthetically intriguing, a very exciting, incredibly moving film. We watch a person go about his life, camera trained on himself, intent on capturing everything. Holzman suffers, chuckles, lies, lovingly mugs with a new fisheye lens, films his nude sleeping girlfriend, loses her, talks in a hesitant singsong voice, and walks around New York, all with an intimacy that we usually expect from a friend or a lover, not a filmmaker. He gives us an extraordinary sense of place, of the oppressiveness of place: one sequence has the camera walk slowly in front of benches full of old people sitting in the sun; their tired, unmoving faces say with painful accuracy a truth about America that the 360 pan at Easy Rider's commune supper could only flashily and expensively allude to. And always he's looking at things, trying to get them down, hoping that he'll finally find them assembling into the golden patterns which lay waiting at the end of the experiential rainbow.
The parts of his life that David chooses to record emphasize the kinds of dislocation he experiences. We meet the girl who lives in apartment 5-E across the street as David zooms in on her and says,
The name on her doorbell is S. Schwartz. Which is a FIT name for her because it answers to both sides of her. The "Schwartz" being the name for her ordinary parts, and the S. being the name for her more MYSTERIOUS side. I call her "Sandra." Because she reminds me of Visconti's "Sandra"-being opaque like that.
In conventional narrative, this sort of passage would be called a set-up. S. Schwartz can now be expected to play a later role in David's story-perhaps to kill him, or to sleep with him, or (with sledgehammer irony) to turn up being his long-lost trampy-heiress half-sister. But placing that demand on an item in a narrative is the result of our Pavlovian response to rhetorical conventions. Interesting people float into our real lives, and just as arily float away, but in hard-core art we demand that major plot details assemble themselves into discernible constellations by the end of the work.
S. Schwartz is important in David's life, although she never does turn up with money bags, or screw him. She is a human being on whom David can project fantasies, and the sum of those projections recapitulate in some way the workings of David's head. Anyone and anything that David chooses to single out with his lens or his microphone takes on importance precisely because the diarist has picked it out as an essential object of his attention.
The problem, though, is that a fundamental feature of lived life is the appallingly low density of things that actually leap out into our consciousness as being significant. David doesn't know exactly what S. Schwartz means to him, but he knows that she means something, and putting her on film is his way of capturing whatever that something is. Only later, with great pain, does he realize that things are important only in relation to one another, and meaningful only as they are singled out and consequently allocated significance; that it isn't just S. Schwartz, or S. Schwartz-as-opposed-to-David's girlfriend, it's S. Schwartz and the man who came to fix the sink last month and an empty Kleenex box and the number of steps from his apartment to the 8th Avenue Subway. A movie-any form, any method of singling out and preserving pieces of life short of, say, the encyclopedic chapters of Ulysses, or Rabelais' catalogues-can only destroy by choosing and pinning down. We murder to dissect.
Toward the end of the film, in despair at the failure of his diary-experiment, David points an enraged, accusing finger at the camera: "You don't show me the right things. You don't show me anything that means anything. " He had been looking for meaning in experience, and instead is forced to understand that significance is assigned, not discovered. Meaning isn't inherent, it's an attribution; form is what provides the sense of an observation.
And in coming to that particular realization, Holzman grasps what his diary finally means. The very act of observing an event, of recording it on film, makes it something other than what it is. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies to cinema, and Holzman finally loses all illusions about the possibilities of pure documentary; lived life recorded is no longer lived life; transparent, diamond-hard cinema verite is no closer to the real than the images on the Nixon-Paramount silver screen.
LOSS OF innocence is the standard name for that kind of knowledge, but here the loss is the audience's as well. [What follows entails telling the end of the movie. I had a fight with a friend about this-he said that it would ruin the film to know about the end; I thought it was important enough to the whole structure of the film to talk about. So: skip the rest of this paragraph if you've never forgiven Fred for telling you that the butler did do it.] The film ends, fades to black, and credits appear: David Holzman is played by L. M. Kit Carson; the filmmaker is Jim McBride. What we thought was documentary was the cruelest of lies, for even here screenplay has been passed off as cinema verite . Suddenly, in a numbing Borgesian inversion, the movie turns around on itself. We had come to a final knowledge-filmed life isn't life- only to have even that ripped away. Abruptly, with great shock, David Holzman's Diary comes to mean exactly what it is: we thought we'd found a truth about life from a film of lived life; instead, we got that meaning from a piece of imaginative art.
Which would imply that life itself is devoid of meanings: truths and insights, belong to the realm of statements about life. The Miss America show is more significant that Miss America herself; Time's cover article on Love Story and the Return to Romanticism says more about America than Love Story itself; and Love Story , in turn, says more about greed and obtuseness than Erich Segal's 5' 10" body. Its only a conjecture, but maybe the chicken gumbo sitting in your kitchen cupboard tells less about ourselves in this age of media and masscult than Warhols jazzy repro, resting elegantly and silently, in the Museum of Modern Art.