In 2004, Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” shook up the independent film world—thanks not just to its iMovie-made ingenuity, but also for its groundbreaking psychotronic storytelling style. As J. Hoberman wrote in his Village Voice review at the time, “Jonathan Caouette’s precocious memoir-cum-psychodrama … is so raw that it bleeds.” If the personal documentary form had for years been associated with the wry essays of anxiety-ridden self-analysts Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner, Caouette had blown the whole thing up in an explosive purge. Why didn’t other filmmakers follow? In my latest SundanceNow column, I look at Caouette’s follow-up “Walk Away Renee” and offer a possible answer to the above question.
I think it’s instructive that YouTube, launched a year later than “Tarnation,” would engender millions of far less talented Caouettes, who would similarly use their computers to document and distribute the stories of their lives, irrevocably changing the media world. But why didn’t “Tarnation” itself break out in a bigger way and become a more influential phenomenon. While the movie earned more than a million dollars in box office receipts worldwide—a not-too-shabby figure for a weird personal doc—”Tarnation” still seems to be regarded today as a kind of outsider-art oddball.
One of my contentions is that Caouette’s films, both “Tarnation” and “Walk Away Renee” are in many ways difficult to watch, showing rather unpleasant sides of the director and his mother. “Indeed, the films can be off-putting,” I suggest, “which may be one of the reasons why few filmmakers have followed in Caouette’s brash footsteps. For all of its digital razzle-dazzle, the work is ultimately about mental combustion and collapse, which in turn drives his unique aesthetic choices. How many filmmakers can claim to be so closely in tune with mental illness to cinematically reproduce it?”