Sunday, October 10, 2004


* * (out of four)
Seen 10 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I used to joke about how you could predict the documentary Oscars fairly easily because the movie about the Holocaust was a shoo-in. That's not so much the case now, but there is still a tendency to grade documentaries as much on the subject matter as on the actual quality of the film, which is why a film like Tarnation gets much more attention than something like, say, Word Wars. The latter is a much more well-constructed movie, but a look at a family's mental disorders brought upon in part by attempts to treat them is more important than wacky people playing Scrabble.

One of the biggest issues Tarnation has is that its subject (and writer/director/producer/editor), Jonathan Caouette, is an actor by trade and the very first images we see of him, from home movies when he was about nine years old, is of him performing. I don't doubt the veracity of what he's saying, but I can't help but be aware of how much artifice he puts into the telling of his and his mother's story.

Caouette's movie is culled from various sources - family pictures, home movies, recorded messages, video diaries, "underground" films he made as a teenager. He then edited it with iMovie, and he went nuts with that. The effect is strikingly egocentric, in many ways more like an edited blog than an actual movie.

Not that I can completely mock that without hypocrisy - before this blog became "Jay's Movie Blog", it was about my daily life, although that soon fell by the wayside because my life is relatively boring and I never got the knack of thinking of myself as a character - or refering to myself in the third person, which Caouette does in peculiar fashion. We've sat through the opening credits and seen his name four times, and yet all the captions (save, I think, one, which may have been subtitling) refer to "Jonathan".

The quick cutting, captioning, and certain repeated effects tricks serve to help tell the story when there's not necessarily a lot of footage to do so, but the aggressive style of the editing occasionally makes it feel like a ninety-minute short film. The film also seems very staged in the begining and end, which take place in 2002 or 2003. I imagine Caouette had been accumulating this footage for twenty years, but the idea of making it into a movie is of more recent vintage... but early enough that he was more self-conscious about where he put the camera and what he captured. There's a creepy scene toward the end, for instance, where Jonathan's mother Renee Leblanc is dancing around her apartment, acting manic and kind of nuts (she'd been brain-damaged by a lithium overdose), that goes on long enough for me to start wondering what kind of son sees his mother acting like this and makes sure he gets it on tape, rather than putting the camera down and dealing with her.

It looks like Caouette mostly turned out all right, despite what looks like a severe lack of quality parenting he got from his parents and (especially) grandparents. It makes Tarnation an odd little relic, though - it remains almost silent on the morality of what his mother was put through (two years of electroshock as a child and 100 stays in mental hospitals over the years) and winds up being a chronicle of Cauoette's life. There's nothing wrong with that, but the audience may have some expectation of more than just self-examination. Any relevence to the world at large, though, is up to the audience to find.

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