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TARNATION| An Open Letter To Jonathan Caouette

TARNATION| An Open Letter To Jonathan Caouette

Dear Jonathan,

I am not sure how to begin, so let me start with a famous saying that was humming in my mind while I watched what I consider to be the magnim opus of personal cinema, your incomparable

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karnenina

I have read a little about how you did it, but what I want to know is: How did you do it? Susan Sontag said that ‘To write about something is to think about it’ and watching Tarnation, I had to believe that for you, documenting these experiences was a way to deal with them, to express yourself and feel emotions. Your confessions have devastated me. I have not been so moved by a film in all my days (and at this point, they are legion.) There are so many things I want to say to you…

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 not recognize that the reality of Tarnation taps into the major chords of human existence that are so well represented in fiction 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.

There is also a strong generational connection that is manifest throughout. We are children of the same era; the same haircuts, the same passion for punk rock and the Cocteau Twins (finally hearing Elizabeth Frazier’s voice in a movie theater ALONE is a gift) and the sexual ambiguities of the 1980’s punk scene. One of the great pleasures for me in watching the film was your ability to draw me back into that era, to re-experience Zoom and Rosemary’s Baby and the cheap horror films of the early video-store era. I too was raised on the video store, on stolen records and cheap punk rock shows. I used my own consumption of the arts to escape the limitations of my own hometown. I too moved to New York City in 1997. Watching you was like watching an alternative version of my own experience, filtered through pain and through crisis. And while I was awed by your patience and your creative response to your experiences, I admit I was also filled with envy.

That is not to say I could ever envy your responsibilities, more that I envied your will and your externalization of that will. 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.

All of My Love,

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