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Thread: REVIEW: Tarnation

  1. #1
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    REVIEW: Tarnation

    Provincial drama queen makes good

    Watching Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical documentary Tarnation is a distasteful and depressing experience. Its cutting is jerky and quick enough induce nausea or ADD. There is a Sundance buzz about it because it supposedly cost $218 to make, using old snapshots, home movies, answering machine messages, and a free Apple iMovie editing kit. It’s sensational in its self-exposure, but that carries with it many willful, cruel revelations of the miserable life of other members of his Texas family -- of his poor, demented mother, Renee LeBlanc, and her dim, perhaps sadistic, parents, Rosemary and Adolph Davis. Renee, we learn, was subjected to many shock treatments with the approval of Rosemary and Adolph after the one-time child model fell off a roof and suffered hysterical paralysis. Caouette believes Renee was normal before that; if so, she never was again. He was put in foster homes as a young child and abused. He once saw his mother raped.

    Caouette was always gay, and interested in music and acting: a drama queen. In high school he put on a most peculiar theatrical production: a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet with actors lip-synching to the songs of Marienne Faithful. He is seen at eleven filming himself dressed as a girl and nervously talking of being abused, a disturbed and unsettling scene. Two years later he’s making Super8 slasher films of neighbor kids.

    You may say that this film is inchoate and self-indulgent, and you'd be right, but there is no doubt about the horror or the precocity of what it recounts. Elsewhere we see Jonathan in always brief clips – a pretty, pale nancy boy – trying various personas and looks, disguised as a Goth girl, for instance, to get into punk clubs while underage. At this point he’s back with the grandparents and we see them intermittently over a decade or more: she, a repulsive crone who dies after a stroke; he, blandly simpleminded, ever in denial that anything’s amiss.

    Meanwhile Caouette revolts by trashing the house and frequently attempting suicide. So we’re told: all this is narrated only through silent titles, though there are snatches of recorded dialogue from the many odd, fragmentary sources.

    Caouette makes much – arguably too much – use of mirroring, multiple screen images, hyper-saturated color, and other visual editing gimmicks to enliven his minimal material. As one begins to realize that he too was deranged, over the top, the crazy visual style, however annoying, begins to seem appropriate. This is not to imply that the footage often makes much sense. There are no extended family dialogues with any real content as, for instance, in Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, which also makes use of revealing found video documents about a family, but has more coherent ones. Caouette’s material is extremely fragmentary – little more than a few snapshots at first, made more so by never dwelling on any of the stills for more than an instant. It’s an accomplishment on his part to have framed some sort of narrative, however skeletal, out of all this. He films himself often but briefly, never speaking in paragraphs. We don’t get much detail about any one thing, no time capsules, no clear sense of place, just a whirlwind snapshot tour with big guideposts on the order of “JONATHAN WENT TO NEW YORK.”

    After Jonathan does finally go to New York in his late twenties, he forms a relationship with a good-looking boyfriend named David Sanin Paz, not the first such connection but the one that continues today. The existence of such relationships in his life suggests an element of warmth and stability in Caouette’s experience that the story otherwise bypasses. He makes many student films (we’re not told where) and gets some acting gigs, including a commercial (also unspecified). But he doesn’t escape Renee – his film’s obsession, his great subject – or his grim past. Renee comes to visit, and he and she have a reunion with his father, the first in 30 years. Later, after a lithium overdose, Renee’s mind’s more severely damaged.

    Here Caouette goes back to Texas for the first time in five years to see her and finds, and of course films, a trashed house, a mother no longer even superficially coherent. We’re forced to observe one of her meaningless, repetitious, giggling monologues which goes on for endless minutes – the hardest to watch and most senseless of many ugly moments in the whole painful recital. Then we’re told that he’s brought Renee to stay with him in New York. This after a scene back in Texas where he accuses his now feeble and aged grandfather of abusing his mother as a child.

    The last scene, perhaps shot by David, shows Jonathan sleeping peacefully beside his mother in the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his lover.

    The frenetic style of the film contains echoes of Gus Van Sant – notably skyscapes with clouds as markers; the Kenneth Anger of Invocation of My Demon Brother; and the Warhol films, which Caouette grew up with, along with the kids’ homemade videos on TV’s “Zoom,” and Eighties teen revolt films like Over the Edge and My Bodyguard. So we learn from an article for FLM magazine, “Twenty-Five Things That I Love,” where he mentions Chris Makepeace: “As a kid I used to pretend My Bodyguard and Meatballs were these wonderful gay love stories with all the dirty parts cut by Jack Valenti…” He also “loves” Sissy Spacek’s “bloody-killer-walk” in Carrie, and his desire to evoke the darkest of horror flicks is obvious.

    Unlike these mostly highly artificial models, and despite the excessive artifice of its ediing, Tarnation is self-manufactured confessional filmmaking at its most baldly ugly and grim. There is much to be endured and little to be enjoyed in it.

    Did this have to be? For all the true pain of his past, couldn’t Jonathan Caouette have produced something more composed and thoughtful than this? Couldn’t he have transmuted all his suffering and confusion into art instead of making this trash-heap documentary? Some materials are too close at hand. There is too much in this film that is incoherent and uninteresting. Can one really speak of Tarnation and Nathaniel Kahn’s transcendent portrait, My Achitect: A Son's Journey, in the same breath, as some writers are doing?

    These questions are futile, however. Whether we like it or not, since it has had the Sundance blessing and gotten John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant to produce it, and given the increasing pocket-sized handiness of DV and dedicated editing techniques, this film is going to have a path-breaking impact. One can imagine future journals of less unhappy, less dysfunctional, saner youths rising out of the rubbish pile of what will now be seen as Caouettes’s pioneering effort in the field.

  2. #2
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    I could nitpick but truth is I cannot disagree with the bulk of your comments above. I can see how many would also find the film "distasteful and depressing" and be annoyed by the "crazy visual style". The description of the film as "fragmentary" is clearly deserved. Then again, my reaction to Tarnation differs significantly.

    A 20-years-in-the-making autobiography in the form of an underground film, one that has absorbed a variety of influences from what was once called the "avant garde". Techniques that have infiltrated pop culture mostly via music videos. It's a video diary from someone who found an outlet of expression at an early age within the fringes of the art world. Mr. Caouette has chosen to present the material in raw form, with only intertitles to provide a bit of structure and chronology. Processing and interpretation of the material is almost completely the viewer's job.

    This viewer found two basic organizing principles useful:
    First, the film can be viewed as a son's attempt to depict his relationship to a mother who was in one or more ways, absent.
    Second, the film can be interpreted as an illustration of how a person who is subjected to child abuse and family dysfunction, who appears to give in to self-destruction, can experience some degree of healing and rebirth. Can you see how it can be argued that Tarnation has a sort of "happy ending"? Taking into account what Mr. Caouette endured, I found it remarkable that he seems quite capable of developing supportive, long-term relationships, that his interactions with family members are free of recrimination and blame. (He does not "accuse" Adolph of abusing Renee. Caouette seems to be exploring an allegation made by one he knows to be unreliable as an informer. I did not sense any bitterness on his part when addressing Adolph on this subject.)

    I understand how one would experience frustration at so much left unsaid, at leaving the theatre with too many questions. But I feel I know enough to feel endearment towards our tarnished angel and empathy towards his tragic mother.

  3. #3
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    Oscar:

    I don't really see where we disagree, except that I judge Tarnation on aesthetic grounds and find it shapeless and in bad taste, and you don't usually do that. My point was not to condemn the film but only to describe it. I noted that it is going to be an influence and will stand as the first of its kind. On the other hand when you talk about this kind of film, the therapist is always there. .
    A 20-years-in-the-making autobiography in the form of an underground film, one that has absorbed a variety of influences from what was once called the "avant garde". Techniques that have infiltrated pop culture mostly via music videos. It's a video diary from someone who found an outlet of expression at an early age within the fringes of the art world. Mr. Caouette has chosen to present the material in raw form, with only intertitles to provide a bit of structure and chronology.
    Of course. I could nit-pick too--about what "twenty years in the making autobiography in the form of an underground film" means, for example. My impression is that he put it together recently. If you mean he was living his life, that's not making an autobiography, it's just living. Either he had a lot of material, in which case it's not in "raw form," but rather highly edited, or he had very little material, in which case he was not doing anything very elaborate in the way of filmmaking up to this, about his own life, so he was not working on a "twenty years in the making autobiography". But the rest of what you say is true.
    Processing and interpretation of the material is almost completely the viewer's job
    It always is. The question I was asking was whether the filmmaker has done his job leading up to the viewing.
    First, the film can be viewed as a son's attempt to depict his relationship to a mother who was in one or more ways, absent.
    That hardly needs pointing out. As I said, this is "his film’s obsession, his great subject."
    …you see how it can be argued that Tarnation has a sort of "happy ending"? Taking into account what Mr. Caouette endured, I found it remarkable that he seems quite capable of developing supportive, long-term relationships, that his interactions with family members are free of recrimination and blame.
    Certainly, and I noted that too--I suspect that his picture of his life is rather one-sided, that he has strengths to have the good relationships which don't fit into his focus and so we get only glimpses of them. He focuses on his life as dysfunction, which is hardly unjustified by the evidence he supplies, but this is not in any sense a complete picture of the man's life or one with any perspective. Whether his attitude to his grandfather is as neutral as you say, we shall never know.

    Perspective is what Nathaniel Kahn provides, when he goes in search of his father. But he had an advantage as well as a disadvantage. He had the great disadvantage of being largely ignored by his father. But he had the advantage of distance that this provided, and the result of that distance and all the time taken to cross it is a film that provides us with understanding and love, as well as admiration for a great artist who was an imperfect man. I find that much more interesting. But it was not my purpose to condemn Jonathan Caouette for not being Nathaniel Kahn. I only mention My Architect as an example of a young man's autobiographical film that has infinitely more depth and provides an infinitely richer experience to the viewer.
    I understand how one would experience frustration at so much left unsaid, at leaving the theatre with too many questions.
    I don't believe I said that at all. I was not talking about my emotional experience except to note that certain moments were particularly unpleasant to watch. I had no questions. The film provoked not curiosity but repugnance. I was simply glad that it was over. I would not want to watch it again. My aim was to note its importance, to critique it aesthetically, and to point to something better that we can watch. But I am not claiming Tarnation is without interest. It represents a phenomenon. In its way it's original. It was worth writing about or I wouldn't have bothered.

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