Tarnation and the State of the Nation: A New Yorker’s Perspective
Edward D. Miller
Even though many critics raved about Tarnation, I went only after friends shunned me for not having seen Jonathan Caouette’s film. The critics may have emphasized its inventiveness -- and their own difficulty in classifying the film securely within a genre -— but the story is also a simple one. A young man, raised in Texas but now a New Yorker, wants to know who his mother is now that he is an adult. As all the reviews repeat, the film was edited on an Apple computer, patching together items from his archive (old family photos, super 8 films, answering machine tapes) using iMovie. The film’s originality is in part related to the at-home technology of Tarnation’s production, even though a film historian can easily trace some of its aesthetics and motives back to such analog homegrown greats as Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and Albert Maysles. Also as a colleague pointed out, the film doesn’t come out of nowhere. The experimental works of George Kuchar and the early films of Gus Van Sant (who is one of the producers) certainly anticipate Tarnation.
For me, the most important aspect of Tarnation’s originality is that it brings the rampant use of text to a non-subtitled film. Art that uses text has become very recognizable in other mediums in the last twenty years (think Barbara Kruger’s advertising slogans, Jenny Holzer’s truisms, as well as the paintings of Edward Ruscha, Bruce Nauman’s videos and installations, and Jean-Luc Godard’s experimentations in narrative cinema) but mainstream documentary relies less on text and more on voice-over. To see Tarnation is a readerly affair. To see Tarnation is to see a non-fiction film that abandons the use of a distinguished or sermonizing disembodied voice (special telegram to Ken Burns, Michael Moore, and Nick Broomfield). Caouette refuses even his own voice in the present until almost the last scene of the film, allowing music to be a driving force in the film. He uses written words to reconstruct personal history, sometimes placed over an image, sometimes over a blackened screen to describe and insert an image or sequence within a chronology. Words stitch together images from disparate sources and media.
The text in the film is written in the third person, even though we know that the author is the filmmaker, who is representing his own experience or imagining his mother’s (Renee) life. We find out that the filmmaker suffers from de-personalization disorder; his mother is implicated because this disorder occurs after a drug dealer friend of hers gives him a laced PCP joint. The written narration is a demonstration of this disassociation. It relays information without apparent emotion -— as if the events were happening in another film altogether -- though the size and color of the font often flirts with melodrama and foreshadowing.
Many of the images of the filmmaker are from his childhood or teenage years, performing or posing for the camera. He was angelic looking as a child, and as a teenager his sexuality was compelling and coy. Photographs of him with an '80s New Wave look reveal an androgyne crying out for others to be attracted to him, hiding behind a desire to be desired. Compared to his grandparents and mother who do not age well (his grandmother looses her teeth, his grandfather becomes as curled as a comma, and his mother's attractiveness dissipates through the cruelty and derangement she endures), he becomes the object of beauty in his own film, replacing his mother (who we read and see was a local beauty queen when young). Jonathan’s narcissism (no judgments here, for I applaud this “malady”) is mediated through the depersonalizing text. I know that the filmmaker has to navigate the effects of his condition, but the demonstration of this disorder as a filmmaking technique saves the film from indulgence.
Caouette does finally address his camera to admit what he is feeling and fearing as he is feeling and fearing it: that he loves his mother and at the same time he is scared that he will duplicate her collapse in his own life. The scene is effective in part because it seemed authentic, but it is also moving because the filmmaker wisely avoided this kind of on-camera confession (so cliched now due to reality television) until this moment that is framed as the present. Importantly he cuts the scene short as he starts to cry -- he doesn't want to show too much sorrow and fear. Predictably, I too fought back tears.
All of his characters also avoid admitting too much on camera. When Caouette tries to interview his mother and grandparents, they deny him entrance into real feelings of remorse or any account of actual suffering. Instead they want to put on a show in front of the camera, even when they are living in rubble. They don't want to be interviewed, they want to act. With his camera and text, Caouette turns his mother into his very own Warhol superstar. When young, Renee was glamorous; later, suffering from mental illness, she remains captivating. Drawn to the camera, she is never quite sure what to do in front of it, looking for a script that is not there. In one scene, after another return to his life, furthered aged and damaged by drugs and institutional mistreatment, she tries to turn a song about a pumpkin into a bravura performance that demonstrates that she is still charming and childlike. Her son -— and his camera -— are fascinated with her failure at showing anything but her own disintegration and vulnerability. The scene could pass for one of Warhol’s early films or screen tests where the artist encouraged his performers to avoid acting in order, perhaps, to witness the ensuing dilemma of being yourself when that might be the most frightening acting exercise of them all. As Joan Rivière, author of the classic essay “Womanliness as Masquerade,” might ask -- what’s a girl to do if she can’t do her song and dance number?
If I might speak for my film-going companion, we were both emotionally undone by Tarnation, even as we tried to be intelligent New Yorkers who’ve just seen an intense film about dysfunction in the scary hinterlands. As we regained a sense of our own lives through discussing/distancing the film, we realized that we couldn't think of the first name of the filmmaker. We could remember the name of his father Steve and everyone else's name including his boyfriend in high school (Michael). Perhaps an indication of a loss of memory brought about by the recent election, I'd suggest that this is a result of the filmmaker's depersonalization--the lead character in the film is almost unnamed and instead he is marked by those around him. Even if they are not more memorable than he, they inhabit their own stories with more passion, and they are more named. In fact, Jonathan is most shockingly vivid in his childhood performances of brutalized women, which serve as an almost instinctual attempt to do research into his missing mother’s life.
As my companion Frances observed, the real hero of the film is Caouette's boyfriend, David. Though he is virtually without voice in the film, he agrees not only to take on Jonathan but also his mother Renee. Not only is David leading man handsome (he is the only person who doesn’t age incredibly during the course of the film), but he takes on this family from the heart of red state darkness (can’t we give Texas back to Mexico please…). As the credits rolled to the list of "thank-you"’s, I said to Frances he better thank his boyfriend (he does)! Later on the street, Frances said she hoped that with the money we hope he is making, Jonathan can find an apartment for his mother where she can have a nurse or a caretaker look after her. He deserves this. And especially David needs a bit of peace from his lover's family.
As Tarnation is a “real” story of surviving in the hinterlands of the US, and I am an emotional busybody from one of the country’s Coasts, I have a few "feelings" about the filmmaker, his family, and domestic geopolitics. What happened to his mother -- particularly the repeated shock treatments -- is a human rights violation. This violation is worthy of investigation by Amnesty International. Her grandparents, even if they never beat her, and their doctors committed repeated crimes against humanity. I wonder about the filmmaker's fury toward this injustice. Perhaps the audience becomes a surrogate for emotions he can’t entirely express.
When Jonathan and later his mother arrive in New York, they come to the city as refugees. In my elitist appraisal, they have been living in a country ruled by a harsh regime where women and gays are systematically oppressed. When they get to the City -- not an easy place to have both a career and a lover but we do have the freedom to complain goddammit! -- it is as if they have made it to a demilitarized zone where they can make sense of their experience as well as just survive. Perhaps I am prone to melodramatic outbursts of caring, but I am happy Jonathan and Renee made it to NYC and that they were able to star in a film Jonathan made.
Edward D. Miller is Chair of the recently-formed Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island (part of the City University of New York). Special thanks to Frances Sorensen and Jason Simon for their insight and interactions.