Film Studies: Mr McBride, consider this an invitation to dinner - RSVP

By David Thomson

Published: 07 May 2006

I t wouldn't surprise me if few of you have ever heard of Jim McBride or David Holzman's Diary. To tell the truth, I wouldn't be astonished if not one of you had heard of McBride or his first film. Anyway, the last time I saw Jim McBride was in Vienna about 10 years ago - I know, it sounds like The Third Man, but we had dinner, a group of us, in a restaurant and there I was sitting next to Jim.

He was a lovely fellow, amiable, funny, relaxed. Great company. I'm sure my wife was there, and I think his was, too - Tracy Tynan, that's a pretty solid circumstantial detail, don't you think? Tracy Tynan ... the daughter of Kenneth Tynan.

I know this all happened because he was talking about his next picture. It was to be a Northern Ireland story, and he was confident that the improved relations over there would allow the film to be made. I had my doubts at the time, but in 1997 it came out: The Informant, with a script by Nicholas Meyer, directed by Jim, starring Anthony Brophy, Cary Elwes and Timothy Dalton. Now, those are real people, aren't they? And the film is very good. There are some who say it's the best fiction film about Northern Ireland ever made.

That was nearly a decade ago, I know, and I don't believe there's been another movie from Jim since then. If you look him up on the internet, you get a few episodes of television series - Six Feet Under, that sort of thing. So I wonder what he has been doing, because he and I are more or less the same age - which is no longer a decent age. So how is he managing?

Now, what I have to tell you next is the hook to this piece, and you may say it can't be a hook if it's this buried. Still, when he was just 25 or so in the late Sixties, Jim made this knockout film for only about $2,500 called David Holzman's Diary. And it's recently been reissued on DVD.

This is what it is, honestly: it's a day in the life of Mr Holzman who is a devoted cinéma verité practitioner; he carries a 16mm camera around with him all the time to record his life, or to prove he's alive. There was a lot of that kind of intense verité scrutiny in the Sixties, which is funny because some of us think people were a lot more alive then, so did it really need proof?

But here's the catch. David Holzman never existed. He was played by an actor - though I doubt the actor got paid. It was an actor named Kit Carson, who was actually a direct descendant of the frontier scout Kit Carson. You don't believe that? All right - this Kit was the father of Hunter Carson who is the little boy in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. You never heard of it? So if I tell you it's a love story starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski you'll know I'm pulling your leg? Perhaps you need to look it up (as well as show an ounce of trust now and then...)

Anyway, David Holzman's Diary is a good portrait of the Sixties and of film-makers in New York who were giddy with the influence of the French New Wave, and it's a movie you owe it to yourself to track down. You'll like it.

Not that that is all I have to tell you about Jim McBride - not by any means. He did a couple more documentaries, or mockumentaries, in the early Seventies such as My Girlfriend's Wedding (also on the DVD), and he did a science fiction film, Glen and Randa - that was set after the Bomb, with teenagers looking for a great city. Then there was a movie called Hot Times, and I will admit I haven't seen it and I'm not sure I know anyone who has.

I realise admitting that doesn't exactly strengthen my case. So how about this: in the Eighties, this very same Jim McBride made three films in a row that are tremendous - Breathless, which was a remake of the Jean-Luc Godard film, set in southern California, with Richard Gere as Jean-Paul Belmondo and this amazing sexpot Valérie Kaprisky as Jean Seberg's character. There is a scene in a shower that... Then there was The Big Easy, a tribute to New Orleans, its food and sex, a thriller, with knockout performances from Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin and another sex scene that shouldn't have been allowed.

Oh, right, you're saying - I remember that one! You meant that Jim McBride! I certainly do, and then he made Great Balls of Fire with Quaid again as Jerry Lee Lewis and Winona Ryder as his child bride.

There were people who looked at that trio and said Breathless was on the arty side, and I daresay you're laughing yourself silly at the idea of Richard Gere losing his cool. But Gere was terrific. I'm sure The Big Easy made money, and even Great Balls of Fire was a talked-about movie. There you are, you think you may have seen a couple of these, don't you?

But I have to tell you that I don't know where Jim McBride is now. And I know that at 65 he's of an age that easily embarrasses the people who run the picture business. So I don't know how likely it is that we'll hear from him again. I bet he has a shelf full of scripts just waiting to go, and I would not be surprised if some of them made pictures as good as The Big Easy.

So I'm very happy to see that David Holzman's Diary is being released, even if its odd provenance may stir up your suspicions. Did I dream "Jim McBride"? Is this all a story to warn you about the picture business? Do you think there's a chance Jim will see this and drop a line and give us an answer?

d.thomson@ independent.co.uk

'David Holzman's Diary' is available on DVD, £12.99

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