The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
Let’s just start with this, one of the most breathtaking sequences of non-fiction filmmaking in the 21st century:
In early 2004, I braved the cold of the Park City night and slipped into one of the innumerable theaters at the Sundance Film Festival to watch Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation. By the time the film was over, I was transformed by the movie, unable to write about it until months later when a new version of the film, the music changed to meet the standards of rights clearances, played at the New York Film Festival. I was and continue to be moved to tears by this story of a family ripped apart by mental illness, and of a life that was constructed from so much unnecessary cruelty and unhappiness. I was a happy confident kid in the 1980’s, I never experienced anything remotely like the life that Jonathan Caouette describes in his tour de force of personal filmmaking, and yet I felt a deep, fraternal (maybe even paternal) connection to Jonathan and his story that continues to this day.
Tarnation is the only movie I have ever seen that made me want to burst through the screen, grab someone in my arms and hold them until everything was alright again. Ok sure, the fact that the movie was made on a consumer-grade computer using consumer editing software makes the film an interesting pioneer of sorts, but more than just the tools, it is the obsessive attention to emotional texture and detail, the depth of Jonathan Caouette’s personal archive of home movies and videos, and the juxtaposition of those elements with the sense of personal salvation that can be found in popular music and culture that makes Tarnation a generational touchstone for me and, I think, one of the most important documentary films of this era. It also, and in a very different way, stands alongside a masterpiece like Jem Cohen’s Instrument for the way it gets the texture and feeling of being young and an individual in American society right. That is a truly rare thing in film, to refuse to glorify the suffering and emotional intensity of youth and instead honor it as real experience, fucked up and full of energy, violent and spilling over with desire, but pinned firmly against the reality of a culture that refuses to validate or provide legitimate outlets for the emotional life of young people.
And of course, it is that insight into and outrage at the reality of constrained passions that ultimately makes Tarnation an important queer film as well, one that addresses head on the psychological brutality faced by so many kids growing up gay in America. While this decade won’t be remembered as the beginning of the battle for gay equality, it will certainly be looked upon as the dark days before the light, the time when physical violence, public and private discrimination and a quiet national bigotry against the gay community was seen as an acceptable response to the request for equal protection under the law. Looking back on Tarnation today, it is so clear to see how far we have to go as a culture, what suffering we could prevent with an enlightened approach to sexuality in this country. As we all sit and watch state after state after state vote down gay equality, as we all wait for a national queer movement to hold the feet of power to the fire and demand equality at the national level, Tarnation remains as profound a statement of what is at stake than anything in the culture today. And while Jonathan Caouette escaped the misunderstanding and suffering of his family and became a great artist, so many others have not. Where do we go from here?
As an initial response to the film, I decided to write Jonathan a letter and, looking back on that, I still feel flooded with feeling for him and the film. And so, Jonathan Caouette, wherever you are, I’ll say it again today:
“First and foremost, the most important thing you have proven to me is that, in the cinema, honesty and empathy negate exploitation. There were moments watching the film when I was uncomfortable, when I felt that maybe things were so wrong, they were right in an absurd way. I realized that these perceptions of the people in your film were my own insecurities flayed wide open and made manifest on the screen. Watching your parents fall apart, the fear of having one’s personality be the cause of one’s own persecution, and especially the fear of aging and dying are so openly considered in the film that it transcends personal judgement and places your family members in the rarified air of great characters. This is not to fictionalize your experience or to trivialize the lives you examine in any way, but to (fail to) recognize that…Tarnation taps into the major chords of human existence… is to dismiss its primal urgency; Your life is felt deeply by your audience. We experience our own concerns and flaws through your film. I can think of no higher praise…Watching Tarnation is, for me, watching a human being construct a life, experiencing the creation of an artist and an individual. Your trials and tribulations made me so sad, but your response to them and the object you have created from them have inspired me and moved me to tears. It brings me great comfort to know that a beautiful punk rock tragedy can still arouse hope in me. That it is true and real and your own experience only makes it that much more endearing. For that, I owe you.”
and I still do…
Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke