Why L.M. Kit Carson Was Dallas’ Greatest Filmmaker

Carson’s career was prolific and eclectic, scattered and selfless. As a result, he flew largely under the radar.

My high school years were productive. I spent the majority of my free time holed up in the attic of my house, watching movies and television. Beginning around sophomore year, I made it my mission to work through the filmographies of Hitchcock, Scorsese, Ford, and others. This was in New York, where I was spoiled by the quantity and quality of PBS stations and UHF channels. I credit late-night television for much of my early informal education in opera, classical, ballet, jazz, 1990s Caribbean music, the Maysles brothers, video art, and all sorts of other useful things. I remember making a VHS recording of a Woodstock documentary and watching it over and over. I fell in love with the actress Olivia Hussey while watching Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which just happened to be on TV the night I didn’t go to prom. Late-night television was my way into—and out of—the “real” world.

Sometimes the tube provided a shock. One night (it must have been well after 2 am), I stumbled upon a strange little movie. Shot in grainy black and white on the streets of New York in 1967, it appeared to be a first-person documentary about a little man with floppy blond hair who was making a diary about his life. His hope was that the recordings of his life might somehow offer a glimpse into some inner truth. His relationship with his girlfriend was falling apart as a result of his invasive project; he struggled to balance his need to record everything with the mundane routine of day-to-day existence. But he possessed total faith in his camera.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was watching was Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary. The little man with the camera was played by a young Texan named L.M. Kit Carson. I would learn this four or five years later when, during my senior year at the University of Dallas, the little man, now with a ruddy face but with the same floppy locks and slate gray eyes, came to campus to present a program of films under the theme of fable. It was just a few months after September 11, and Carson had this idea that what we needed in those dark days was a rediscovery of the enduring value of fables. Fables, he said, offer us meaning that can hold life together when it all seems to be splintering apart into meaninglessness. We watched High Noon. He spoke about Faulkner. Maybe seven or eight students showed up when he brought Roman Coppola to campus to talk about his new movie.

Beyond Carson’s role in that strange film I’d encountered in my New York attic, I didn’t at first appreciate what he’d accomplished. But I soon learned how far his influence and experience stretched. I was obsessed with the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, and discovering that Carson had co-written Wenders’ Paris, Texas (and that his son, Hunter, played the lead) left me star-struck. Carson had produced the short film version of Bottle Rocket and helped launch the careers of Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers. He wrote an adaptation of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and the spoof Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. He helped found Dallas’ USA Film Festival. He appeared in Running on Empty. He made a wonderful documentary about Dennis Hopper called The American Dreamer. He was D Magazine’s first film critic. He was married for a time to the actress Karen Black. Carson’s career was prolific and eclectic, scattered and selfless. As a result, he flew largely under the radar.

In October, Carson died in Dallas from complications brought on by pneumonia. He was 74. An outpouring of love and admiration showed how many lives he’d touched. In a remembrance, critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that Carson was someone who “was so completely and inarguably his own man that whenever I spent time around him or talked to him on the phone, I’d come away questioning my choices and sensibilities.”

For me, Carson’s improvisational turn in David Holzman’s Diary is enough to consider him the greatest filmmaker ever to come out of Dallas. The movie endures because it presciently anticipates the way our contemporary experience has become a confusion of digital intrusion. It is a protosatire of a YouTube confessional, an anticipatory critique of reality TV. It is a movie about living in a reality that is so mediated by the media we consume that we begin to mistake the media for reality. It also drives home one of the most defining aspects of cinema: that when you turn on a camera and point it at something, you are not capturing reality; you are creating a fiction. As one of Holzman’s friends rebukes him, once you start filming, “all your decisions stop being moral decisions and start being aesthetic decisions.”

Carson’s life was consumed by the movies, but he was no David Holzman. He loved film, but he wasn’t lost to it. He believed in the power of the stories we tell through movies, the way those aesthetic decisions can bring moral realities into focus for the audience. That’s why he did things like present film programs to empty auditoriums on college campuses. It’s also why encountering David Holzman’s Diary in the wee hours of the morning proved such a powerful experience for a teenage boy lost to his own love of film. Watching David Holzman’s Diary felt like experiencing the cinematic bends—a forced and rapid rush to the surface, releasing into my bloodstream the dissolved delusions that feed on the illusions of cinema. The film pulls back the curtain on the structures of cinema itself.

“Expose yourself to yourself!” Carson’s Holzman stammers in front of his camera, in a moment that addresses both a real and fictional audience. “Bring your life into focus. This is a fairy tale.”

What L.M. Kit Carson understood—what he dedicated his life to—was the fairy tale, the conviction that what matters most is the reality of fiction.

This piece appears in the January 2015 edition of D Magazine.

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