With: Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, Adolph
Davis, Rosemary Davis, David Sanin Paz
Is having an extraordinary life a good enough reason to make a
movie? Is an extraordinary life a good movie in and of itself? Jonathan
Caouette’s family life is one long train wreck of
abuse and mental illness, both his and his mother’s, and he’s
been recording that train wreck since he was 11 years old.
Tarnation is an uber-documentary. The level of Caouette’s
documentation of his life is astonishing. To create his ultra-low-budget
movie he wove a history out of family photos and home movies, answering
machine tapes, Super-8 footage of his journal entries or early acting
and directing efforts. It’s a lot of material and Caouette
achieves a phenomenal feat of editing. For example, for the journey
from NYC back home after his mother’s 2002 lithium overdose,
he puts us clearly in the region just by footage of the car trip—the
ranch-style houses, refineries, and scrub woods are a perfect distillation
of a certain area of Texas.
It’s easy to see why Tarnation attracted the attention of
its executive producers (John Cameron Mitchell & Gus
Van Sant). It’s emotional, it’s raw, it holds
nothing back. This is a real life, one that has not always been
pretty and that has the potential at any moment to not be pretty
again. Yet the presentation of this unlovely life is astonishingly
lovely indeed. In place of voiceover, Caouette uses often-lengthy
title cards that sometimes approach poetry, and mighty fine background
music. Of necessity, it’s nearly all montage, with a semi-hallucinatory,
Yes, Tarnation is indeed something special and wonderful
to look at, but it’s still just a glorified peep show, the
logical extreme of the reality shows and talk shows that litter
the TV landscape right now. Only its unusually attractive presentation
separates it from any number of tell-alls. The mark of a movie’s
goodness must be more than just the fact that it presents and provokes
genuine emotion. The events we witness in Tarnation are
definitely more emotionally valid than, say, a cute-kid-with-disease
movie where your feelings get played like a violin. But does that
by definition make a movie “good”—the fact that
someone presents to us an unsparing examination his or her life?
I think not. One can feel sorry about the hardships of Mr. Caouette’s
early life and admire his clear-eyed look back while still believing
that privacy does, and should, exist.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...