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The American practice of everyday life: Tarnation

by Abou Farman

The author is, at times, a writer. His writing has been published in newspapers, magazines and academic journals in Canada, the United States, and Egypt.


The most incredible thing about Jonathan Caouette's highly praised film, Tarnation, is just how highly it has been praised. From the New York Times to filmstew.com, you'd be hard pressed to find a critical review. There's some hedging here and there, but it's overpowered by expressions of shock and awe, and so the film's run in NY, LA and elsewhere keeps getting extended. It's not an infrequent occurrence these days, to see dim pictures praised as beacons of the cinematic arts, but the case of Tarnation is surprising because it is not a studio production nor does it have wide distribution and so does not enter the general economy of obligations established between the media and the film industry, that is to say, between the owners of critics and the owners of artists, which increasingly are one and the same.

Tarnation is a true indie, allegedly produced on an iMac for $218.32, reminding us that not rounding off always makes it more authentic. The downtown price tag provides street cred as well as a great marketing tool. Not a single review, not even this one, fails to bring up the price tag. Some, including Caouette himself, mention in passing that $218.32 is the cost prior to post-production. However, given that pretty much everything about the edit-heavy film - sound, color, effects - is the stuff of post-production, one must reckon an accounting error of Halliburtonian scale, at least a couple of orders of magnitude. Well, the point is not to nickel and dime the film. The more relevant point is that authenticity does not automatically amount to talent or quality.

This new darling of the festival and indie film circuit is praised on two counts, with every reviewer using surprisingly similar terms and phrases (rule 1 of criticism: when in doubt, read the press kit). First, we are told that Caouette's depiction of his life is very "raw" and "original", reimagining the whole idea of a documentary. This is then developed to mean that the film is not melodramatic, self-obsessed, confessional or therapeutic, while it is gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, uncomfortable, original, honest and artful in its depiction of a mother's madness and a son's attempts to come to terms with the life he is thrust into. It is, in the words of the Slate reviewer, a "masterpiece of a mind-bending modern sort."

Yet, everything in the film is familiar, almost banal in its familiarity. How often have we watched dysfunctional families on daytime TV or even on prime time? Which gay boy, which straight boy for that matter, has NOT put on a wig and acted out roles as women of all sorts, sluts, prissy mothers, abused housewives, drunks, flappers, film stars…? Wasn't a lot more on view on the radical late night madness of early community cable, with its unabashed and honest exhibitionism? And have we not seen real madness in its starkest forms on celluloid since at least the 1960s, in real verite masterpieces like Wiseman's Titicut Follies? Have we not seen obsessive self-documentation in films like Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, where we are kept next to the ailing artist until the very moment of his death? The rhetorical response to the rhetorical questions: Yes, we have, and in much more touching and complex ways. Where Wiseman's 1967 film is truly disturbing and critical, and Flanagan's 1997 self-study of illness and dying truly courageous (to take just two examples), Caouette's is merely adrift. It rambles and bounces around like an imp with ADD. Caouette manages to even lose his main character - which, despite all appearances, is not he himself but his mother Renee. And, at the end of the film, what happens to Renee? Does anyone care? Does Jonathan, really?

The film covers its disoriented derriere with overstimulating editing effects, heightening color saturation, deploying quick cuts and playing textual games (there's almost more text in the film than visuals). Again, reviewers have glorified this as though it were new and layered and complicated, as though MTV had not mainstreamed these strategies over the past two decades and as though experimental flimmakers of the past 50 years had simply not existed. Caouette's life and footage are his, they are unique and contain some creative playfulness. To hail that as a masterpiece is to confuse uniqueness with originality, and fooling around with creativity.

The second reason critics have found to praise Tarnation is more interesting. It heralds, we hear, a new kind of film and filmmaking. A whole generation of Americans is growing up with the minutiae of their lives recorded on some medium or other and, as with Caouette, that raw material will be taken and cut by these artistes-by-technological-default into aesthetic objects of rare beauty, digital confessionals with something akin perhaps to a "mind-bending modern" sensibility. One can only hope that the new generation will have greater vision than its first representative. Caouette went to film school where he made 17 shorts, a figure presented in the film as though the quantity itself was to be admired; instead, I ended up wondering about the hidden fate of those 17 outbursts of creativity (seventeen!).

Nevertheless, the point that our mediatique era is yielding an unprecedented crop of recorded lives is interesting in itself and may in part reveal what's holding Tarnation viewers in thrall: America is hypnotized not simply by itself but by the process of recording itself. This is neither narcissism nor exhibitionism. It's a kind of practice, the American practice of recording every day life.

Like democracy and the automobile, the camera may have been a European invention, but it was domesticated in America. No other country has documented itself so thoroughly, so compulsively and minutely, and so visually. From the Civil War, which was the first photographed war, to the current Iraq War, where videocams did duty alongside bayonets in the military's own version of Reality TV; from the Rodney King video and the OJ chase to shows like COPS (the mainstream response to Rodney King); from home videos to all the Reality TV shows (again, born in Europe, naturalized in the US); from the rise of community cable, C-Span and Court TV to the day time talk shows and - most importantly, for a country with by far the greatest number of lawyers per capita - the 'judge shows' like Judge Judy and Judge Hatchett, which became America's central square, the town hall where an atomized society watches itself air its daily concerns, evaluates its own moral positions, and witnesses the extremities of its own constitution, documenting America has been a part of shaping America and Americans. In a country that erased its history, the camera has been a tool not simply of representation but of presentation, or revelation.

In this obsessive process of self-revelation and self-presentation, the new ubiquity of recording technologies has turned the relationship to the camera into a relationship with the self. Rather than me expressing myself through the camera, it is the camera that expresses me. The camera creates the context for relationships and emotions, and in part also the content of those things. Caouette is a perfect embodiment of this - the trouble is, he seems to be completely unaware of it. So it is that while I never gained a sense of what Caouette feels or thinks (nor have any of the reviews offered any insight into this), I became convinced that he couldn't feel or think much unless there was a camera next to him.

Looked at this way, Tarnation is not so much a portrait of relationships within madness and dysfunction, as a portrait of how the camera produces relationships of madness and dysfunction. One of the heralded scenes of the film has Renee singing in front of the camera, and with every note and every gesture, she seems to become more pathetic, acting crazier and crazier. Caouette has been praised for not flinching, for not turning the camera away or cutting the scene with a simple i-movie command. Of course he wouldn't. His camera created the scene; it was not a simple witnessing device. It caused the performance, and so what is seen as lunacy in that long take is partly an effect of Renee's growing self-consciousness and discomfort; her madness emerges only as she realizes the camera will not go away. The camera will just not go away and that is surely enough to drive one crazy. We oughtn't forget either that what drove Renee mad in the first place, as a young girl, was not only shock therapy but also the shattered expectations of becoming a child star. The camera was already on her as a child. And it has not gone away.

Appropriately, it is Caouette's opening scene that sums it all up. Next to his lover, Caouette is on the phone with the hospital, getting updates about his mother's lithium overdose. There is some nervousness, perhaps, but most of all there is self-consciousness, an awareness of the camera. It is the camera that confirms for him his presence and his emotions, and gives him a way of recognizing and acknowledging them. The camera is the medium without which you not only are at a loss as to what to feel but, worse, you don't know how to feel. And in this, one gets the strange feeling that Caouette's lover, a human being right there next to him, is superfluous, surpassed as he has been by the recording device.

Tarnation