Tarnation

July 21st, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Jonathan Caouette

What is it we love about misery? More correctly, why do we apply so much more importance to misery than to happiness in art? What was the last happy film you saw? Maybe it was a romantic comedy, a kids’ movie, or a big fun action blockbuster. Odds are it hasn’t and won’t win an Oscar.

We don’t consider movies about fun or happy things ‘serious’ or ‘mature’ cinema. Only if a movie is about something miserable, destructive or heartbreaking does it (in some cases automatically, by a sort of brand association) rise to level of the festival/arthouse circuit, complete with the rapturous endorsement of the cool critics and distributors raving about what a work of genius it is.

What makes misery so automatically beloved is the question that arises while you watch Tarnation. The story of the life of a young man with more than his fair share of hard knocks, part of the lore surrounding the movie was the fact that it was made for $218 in an Apple iMac. Maybe the reason such a large part of the early buzz fixated on the mystical budget was because someone realised very early on how little they had to work with.

As a story, the whole tale could have been told on a two-sided DL pamphlet and been no less impactful. In fact, it’s told entirely through the on-screen captions that appear throughout the scenes. Everything else is just watching a student filmmaker play with iMovie effects, not the stuff that should make up 60% of the content of a movie.

But there’s also the David Lynch argument; it’s not about story, it’s about imagery. That said, the imagery is all much the same and any impact from it is lost after the time it would take to watch the average ‘edgy’ music video.

No doubt about it, Caouette has had a horrible life; his mother — a promising model — had a bad fall and lapsed into depression. Her parents treated it with electroshock therapy that basically wiped her clean of her personality and (by the time she’d reached middle age), most of her faculties — made obvious by the strongest scene in the film, where Caouette videos his mother in what amounts to an ADHD fit.

He realised he was gay before he was even in his teens, grew up under the influence of various goths, punk, and alternative gay lifestyle role models while his mother rotted away in hospitals and mental institutions. Moving to New York, he met his current partner and found himself drawn back into his former life by his mother’s taking a lithium overdoes that more or less finishes her mind off. All the while, his now enfeebled grandfather denies everything, and it’s all on tape, thanks to Caouette filming himself since he was eleven.

Is it art? Sure, but so’s the abstract paintings and sculpture most people see in art galleries and mistake for an unfinished wall or a piece the air conditioning waiting to be refitted. You can take Tarnation from many angles — from a commercial for the extreme DIY filmmaking movement to the story of a man struggling through a painful life.

Despite the documentary style, it’s all pretty subjective. The captions that mark the passage of the story throughout the film are sometimes wildly emotive, and we get an insight into the kind of person Caouette himself is; he dreamed as a teenager of producer Robert Stigwood making a musical based on his life. He arrived in New York and found work in acting. He’s made this film about his dirty laundry and aired it for the world to see. As the press for the movie admits, some of the content is made up of re-enactments. Like most actor/filmmakers, Caouette wants to be the centre of attention, and while he gives you no reason to disbelieve anything he says, he parades everything with such glee you can’t help but wonder how much colour he’s given the facts to maximise their impact. It also helps (or doesn’t, depending on your point of view), that he seems to include photos and clips of his family members in the most unflattering light possible.

None of this is to detract from an undoubtedly hard childhood of struggling with sexual identity, child abuse, mental illness and a broken home, but for the value of the story, it would have made a better book (or at least a more accessible film). It’s not much more than a reality TV show made by a (justifiably) sad guy with some computer skills who watched too much MTV as a kid.

In the meantime, maybe one day happiness will be cool again.


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