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Documentary Classics: “Tarnation” is Better Appreciated With Age

Documentary Classics: "Tarnation" is Better Appreciated With Age

When I saw Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” for the first time (my Netflix history shows it as rented in June 2005), I found it to be a useless collage of self-indulgence and student-film artiness. I wasn’t aware back then of the whole range of nonfiction film, that autobiographical documentary is such a populous genre and apparently enough people are interested in nobodies who make movies about their depressing lives. And admittedly I was probably a bit jealous. Why hadn’t I thought to make an avant-garde memoir about my family that would simply involve editing home movie footage together on a gifted Mac? I love talking about myself, I had some hardships growing up, and though I didn’t record improv monologues in drag at age 11, I do have some old tapes where I perform lip-synced concerts of Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” in its entirety.

The thing is, while it is possible that any of us could have made “Tarnation” before Caouette did, he’s the one who did it. He’s the one who goes down in independent film history for producing a doc for only $218.32 (with a worldwide theatrical gross of $1.2 mill.). But seven years after the final cut of the film premiered at Sundance, is there anything to this success story beyond the success story? Does the actual work hold up? I decided to find out by attending last week’s indieWIRE anniversary presentation of the film, which I initially despised. I had figured it deserved a second look, anyway, now that I’m a more erudite student and critic of documentary cinema. I’m also changing my mind about films and film in general constantly. Even if I still hated it, though, I’d consider it a documentary classic. Maybe a cult classic, but a classic all the same.

As it turns out, I liked “Tarnation” quite a bit this time around. One discernible reason is the context of seeing the film just after “Stevie,” which I spotlighted in this column last week. Both docs involve young men who, for differing maternal issues, end up in foster homes and then are raised by grandparents. The difference, biographically speaking, is that Stevie continued the pattern of abuse of his family and kept taking turns for the worse while Jonathan Caouette turned his troubles into art. Is it because Caouette is gay? I’m reminded of something “October Country” co-director Donal Mosher said during a Q&A when asked how he escaped his own family’s cycle (documented in the film), recognizing that his homosexuality took him out of his little town of little options and into another kind of family out west.

For Caouette, his new home was out east, but he wasn’t exactly escaping anything and his move and movie could just as well have been done by a straight artist (it just wouldn’t then be his move and movie). I do think “Tarnation” has been very successful in part through its embrace by the LGBT community. But its crossover appeal, from out of both gay and documentary cinema ghettos, was primarily thanks to the overwhelming support of Roger Ebert. In his four-star review, he wrote:

It is a remarkable film, immediate, urgent, angry, poetic and stubbornly hopeful. It has been constructed from the materials of a lifetime: Old home movies, answering machine tapes, letters and telegrams, photographs, clippings, new video footage, recent interviews and printed titles that summarize and explain Jonathan’s life. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Waste Land,” and Caouette does the same thing.

Yes, Caouette is a poet of the cinematic sort, and I didn’t appreciate this enough on first look. Maybe the big screen helped in this instance, as it does with most classic films, even those comprised so much of video footage, because I was transfixed in a way that made me feel I’d never seen this material before. I wonder if I was just too dismissive of the narrative on principle that I overlooked the impressive technique. When I say that “Tarnation” could have been made by anyone, it’s like saying anyone could expressively paint a pot of sunflowers.

In his review, Ebert also compared the doc to Michael Apted’s “Up” films, which I hadn’t thought about in either viewing. But the consideration of a work with such Dickensian biographical detail against a curiosity-fueling series like Apted’s leads me back to one of my original problems with the film: why should we care about just anybody and everybody who can make a doc about himself? It’s bad enough there are way too many docs about any soul with a slightly interesting story. Now that most grown Americans have their pasts documented, if scattered, on VHS and other amateur movie formats, what’s to stop them all from sharing, whether compiled so fancily or not?

Of course, Caouette recognized last week that “Tarnation” is hardly interesting now that YouTube exists and anyone and everyone is making confessional clips like he did thirty years ago. And plenty of us are expressing our lives past and present in videos, blogs, etc., all the time. And when we think of the film being edited on iMovie, it’s not a big deal. So how is it that my revisiting of the film didn’t have me shrugging even heavier than I did six years ago? All the more reason to celebrate this as a classic is to realize how “ahead of its time” it was.

I hate that phrase, though. Really Caouette and his film are perfectly of their own time, as much as “We Live in Public” subject Josh Harris was, and anyone/anything else that does something before the majority latches on. Looking back, “Tarnation” does precede so many first-person docs — interestingly enough, though, it’s an autobiography voiced in the third person — and certainly seeing so many terribly constructed and more self-concerning film memoirs come about since puts Caouette’s debut into perspective.

It’s worth thinking about “Tarnation” in the time it was produced for a number of reasons. It arrived during an era when memoirs were all the rage, years after they gained in popularity yet just before their downfall (the overwhelming interest that led to both saturation and too many inauthentic works), and I’m rather shocked there weren’t more filmed autobiographies akin to Caouette’s. I guess it is harder to make a movie than write a book, but then there’s also reason to accept movies more. Freud said that all autobiographies are worthless because of their mendacity, yet as long as documentarians like Steve James (“Stevie”) and Caouette work with additional editors while working in an autobiographical capacity, they have necessary outsider viewpoints. Literary editors can’t know the truth of an event the same way cinema editors can see the truth in the dailies. Of course, much of “Tarnation” tells Caouette’s story through text, so it’s not completely safe from fabrications.

This film hit Sundance one year after “Stevie,” which I’ve noted it shares themes with, and “Capturing the Friedmans,” which may similarly be viewed as a landmark for documentary’s employment of VHS home movies from the 1980s. Back when I saw “Friedmans” I had an understanding that it could only have been made by an outsider. Nobody in the family would be able to go through all that footage as objectively as Andrew Jarecki did. Well, nobody could have gone through all of Caouette’s footage as subjectively as he did, and in spite of his faux-objective narrative format this is one of its major achievements as a work of art.

If Caouette is worried that “Tarnation” has little worth today, he should consider his own excitement about VHS (acknowledged at last week’s screening) and take notice of the growing appreciation for analog video as if it were the cinephile’s (or at least videophile’s) equivalent of vinyl. Even the “Paranormal Activity” series is heading backwards into that ’80s VHS camera territory with the third installment, which is directed by the ‘document everything’ guys from “Catfish” — excluding producer Andrew Jarecki, which is a shame given his work with “Friedmans.” That new cult of videotape should love “Tarnation,” even if much is obviously manipulated digitally.

Caouette has a new film called “Walk Away Renee,” which is apparently kind of a sequel in that it continues his and his mother’s story following the events of “Tarnation” (see the trailer for the Cannes cut above). Now that will likely be more comparable to Apted’s “Up” series (it’s been about seven years, too). But it makes me wonder when exactly a documentary story ought to end. Re-watching “Tarnation,” I was sure Renee died at the end of the film, not because I remembered it this way but because typically a filmmaker’s reason for doing a doc like this seems to be the death of a parent (see “51 Birch Street” and probably many others). I’m glad it was made when it was, but autobiographically and biographically it’s strange. Not to say I wish she’d died or that I hope she dies in the new one. That’s an awful thought.

Anyway, I also wonder if it will take me six or seven years to warm up to the sequel, too.

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