Fussing repetitively with a lock of blond hair, nervously flashing an incomplete set of front teeth, the figure on screen begins to cough up her “testimony” in the accents of a Southern trailer court. The story that spills from her sounds all too familiar–the boot in her stomach while she was pregnant, the gun muzzle shoved against her head, the sound of her husband shouting, “I’m gonna kill you, bitch!”–but the speaker herself is a novelty, and is perhaps more devastating than any incident she relates. “Hillary,” as she calls herself, is actually an 11-year-old Houston boy named Jonathan Caouette. You are watching a scene he improvised in 1984 before a home videocamera.
Few boys his age would have chosen this character for their role-playing, or could even have conceived of her. What’s heartbreaking about Jonathan–and impressive–is that he turned himself into Hillary with true conviction. How did a kid get access to such emotions? By the time this scrap of footage comes up in Caouette’s sensational film-memoir Tarnation, you know the unfortunate answer, having experienced the beginnings of his story and his mother’s.
A New York-based actor and filmmaker who is now in his early 30s, Caouette put Tarnation together from some twenty years’ worth of his home videos, plus scrapbook photographs, audiocassette diaries, saved answering-machine tapes, favorite pop songs, clips from movies and TV shows and a few sections of recently shot footage (both documentary and staged). Emerging from this assemblage–which is more collage than montage–are three stories in one: Caouette’s tales of the calamities of a lower-middle-class household, the education of a Texas gay boy and the formation, at last, of a redemptive new family.
The original family, it turns out, was Jewish, which puts Tarnation into a category with Capturing the Friedmans as a demolisher of stereotypes. Caouette’s maternal grandparents, the Davises, appear to have been presentable enough when young, but throughout Tarnation they come across as toothless, impecunious, crotchety and ignorant–so ignorant that when their only child, Renee, suffered an ill-defined sickness at the start of her teen years, they turned her over to psychiatrists for a prolonged course of electroconvulsive therapy. Softened up by the experience, and also (no doubt) by the hippie drug culture that had reached Houston, Renee entered her 20s as a disaster-prone single mother with a long record of hospitalizations. She was unable to hold on to Jonathan, who began his career in foster homes at the age of 4 and would eventually go on his own tour of mental hospitals, thanks to some PCP-laced reefers and his grandparents’ willingness to sign forms.
I don’t hesitate to put all this into writing, because you would have to read it anyway in Tarnation. The film’s information–or the part of it that can be paraphrased–generally takes the form of texts, projected on a plain background or, more often, superimposed on the images. Although these words show up less frequently as Tarnation goes on, they also help pull together the other two parts of the film: Caouette’s memories of gay teen life in Houston, which he lived as a punk-rock boy (and sometimes a Goth girl); and the real-life drama of his assuming responsibility for his mother and bringing her to live in New York, in the household he’d established with his lover, David.
The stories you get from the texts are crucial to Tarnation; they explain material such as the Hillary videotape and allow you to feel its impact. But even though the texts often dominate the images and sounds, they also have a way of merging with them, so that the written words become yet another element in the collage. In the first section of the film, for example, the texts have a fairy-tale quality, with their account of a beautiful young princess betrayed and brought low. They allow you some distance from the film’s most harrowing material, which through them becomes almost dreamlike. (In fact, Tarnation begins with a staged scene in New York, in which Caouette tells David that he’s just had a strange dream about his mother.) In the final, most hopeful section of the film, by contrast, the texts are terse. Their effect here is rhythmic more than informative; they punctuate the scenes, repeatedly bringing them back to the matter-of-fact.
If I were to think of a comparison to Tarnation–an unfair one–it would be with Su Friedrich’s autobiographical masterpiece, Sink or Swim, in which the words sometimes carry the emotional weight of the story (about Friedrich’s troubled relationship with her father) and sometimes provide it with a riddling, ironic counterpoint. The difference is that Friedrich’s film contains its overpowering emotions within a rigorous structure. It’s cerebral, allusive and visually crisp, even while being confessional; whereas Tarnation splats and throbs over the screen in bruised-fruit colors, psychedelic patterns and post-Warholian confrontations with physiognomy.
The explanation of how Caouette achieved these effects is almost as important to the film as the story of Renee’s shock therapy. He made Tarnation using iMovie editing software, which he discovered was a standard feature of his lover’s new Apple computer. Other people use iMovie to create little retrospective videos for weddings or bar mitzvahs; Caouette found in it a tool for organizing his vast personal archive, not so much ordering it as shaping it into a simulacrum of his roiling memories, dreams and impressions. In interviews and within the film itself, Caouette has said he suffers from depersonalization disorder, which leaves him experiencing his own life as if he were watching a movie. You could describe the associative, variegated, expressionistic flow of Tarnation as a re-creation of this mental state; or, just as reasonably, you could say it’s a product of iMovie’s limited repertoire of special effects. The program is good at multiple images, grids, superimpositions, strobe effects, kaleidoscopic distortions and solarization, all of which Caouette used with a lavish hand.
The film’s supporters–please add me to the list–have perhaps made too much of the Apple computer backstory. Maybe, lacking iMovie, Caouette would not have begun to make Tarnation. Certainly, without iMovie, he could not have assembled the initial epic-length cut, working single-handed on a $218 budget, in time for the 2003 MIX Festival. The MIX screening led to the rest of the success story: a rapturously received showing of the current eighty-eight-minute cut at the 2004 Sundance Festival, followed by inclusion in the 2004 New York Film Festival and a nationwide theatrical release (beginning October 6 at Film Forum). So was iMovie helpful? Did it guide Caouette’s directorial decisions to some degree? The answers, clearly, are yes. But does Tarnation therefore represent a new era of personal filmmaking, as claimed by producer Stephen Winter (of the MIX Festival) and the executive producers, John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant? I doubt it–and to make the point, I would compare Tarnation not only to earlier works such as Sink or Swim (an utterly handmade, noncomputerized film) but also to a current Paramount release, which was temporarily the country’s box-office champion: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Because the writer-director of Sky Captain, Kerry Conran, created virtually all of the settings and events in the computer, shooting nothing in the real world except for his costumed actors posed against a blue screen, the producers began saying months ago that they, too, had achieved a cinematic breakthrough, a claim that many journalists uncritically echoed. I must confess here that I assisted in this hype, reporting in advance on a very minor feature of Sky Captain for the sake of a byline in the New York Times. Like other mainstream publications, the Times seldom gets excited about artworks in themselves; it prefers to see them as occasions for business stories, or for features on technological innovation (which then become business stories). Newspapers and magazines have therefore been all over Sky Captain, since its creation involved the heavy use of gizmos and the realization, according to the producers, of great economies in filmmaking.
But the facts, like the movie itself, are less than thrilling. The computer-generated imagery in Sky Captain differs not in kind but in quantity–and even in that category, it doesn’t push ahead by much. (See The Phantom Empire, or Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness. For that matter, see The Age of Innocence.) The only worthwhile question concerns the use that Conran made of his digital toys.
The answer: Whereas Caouette employed the computer for mind-blown underground-cinema effects (plus some music-video-style lip-syncing), Conran went for the retro-futurist look. Sky Captain takes place on the eve of World War II–or, rather, in a world of serials and sci-fi programs made in that era–and so boasts a hazy, color-drained, Art Deco Manhattan, in which dirigibles dock at the Empire State Building and searchlights are forever cutting through the sky. By its nature, such architecture adapts well to a computer-based blue-screen technique, which favors big jumps in scale between the foreground (where you find the actors) and the background (where the feet of colossal robots are stomping vintage cars). I thought the pictures in Sky Captain were handsome–as a writer-director, Conran makes a good production designer–and that the period setting was a splendid excuse to put Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law into slouch hats and trench coats. When costumes and surroundings are faithfully recycled from the 1930s, they may have the charm of the old. The same cannot be said for plots, characterizations and dialogue.
After much ballyhoo, Sky Captain turns out to be a mildly pleasant curiosity, which is marketable not as a result of its computer effects but because of its clichés. When you put down your money at the box office, you know exactly what you’re buying. Tarnation, though destined for a different and smaller audience, turns out to be compelling, absorbing and completely unpredictable. You may know the story when you buy your ticket, but you won’t be able to guess from one moment to the next what will pop up on the screen.
As for the opinions expressed in this review: I wrote them down with a computer, but they would have been the same if I’d used a pen.
The Nation‘s own Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis have written and directed a fine documentary called The Take, about the movement by Argentine workers to seize abandoned factories and put them back into use as cooperatives. The film sketches a brief history of neoliberal economics in Argentina–first the large-scale privatizations of the 1990s, which enriched the top tier of the populace, and then the large-scale outflow of this wealth, which left everyone else busted–and then reports in detail on the response of one group of workers, who broke back into their padlocked auto-parts factory, Forja San Martín. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t make this exercise in anarcho-syndicalism seem easy. Political differences surface within the occupied factory (which the workers have to guard around the clock), and the film’s hunky but soft-hearted hero, co-operative leader Freddy Espinosa, dwells often on the strains inflicted on his family. The Take stands out as activist, made-for-TV filmmaking with an honest texture and real intellectual sophistication. In New York City, it is showing at Film Forum (with sponsorship from The Nation) through October 5.