The frenetic truth
Going into seeing Tarnation, I knew just one thing about it - the well known "budget" of two hundred dollars and change. Certainly, for its notoriety, the film must have something to it, an interesting visual style for sure, but more importantly, what the film is about, the actual content of it, must have been interesting enough to get distribution.
Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette created a documentary on his family, centering on his mother Renee, who had been placed in and out of psychiatric hospitals by his grandparents throughout her life. This was not a healthy family situation, and we work through the painstaking details of their collective idiosyncracies. The story is told through numerous old home movies (8mm and video), pictures, even answering machine messages.
There is a surprising redemptiveness in Tarnation. The film is an embracing of the past at face value, and with that kind of foundation, things become possible. With this set of people, that's not going to be easy, but there's no doubt that Caouette is trying his best.
I have two real criticisms of the film. Beyond these, the film is excellent at creating a mood, and getting across a sense of these people. To me, though, the style of editing, which is busy and uses effects heavily, rather distanced me from the film. I imagine this will be the most common problem people have the film, but honestly, given the materials at hand, this approach may have been the best choice - and it seems to reflect in its own way the mental state of Renee and Jonathan.
My other issue is that the start of the film includes some clearly staged shots, as if opening a dramatized work. These end up as part of a simple framing device that ties the film together. But this was rather disconcerting, I didn't know what I was watching at first. There is a debate nowadays about documentaries and "truth" - an interesting discussion indeed - but for me, this is beyond that question. The change in style is too much. It feels forced. For me this is the bigger problem, because with some patience and a ready video camera - which, from the rest of the film, should have been in ready supply - Caouette could have gotten some more appropriate footage for this framing.
I'm not sure if I should be more amazed at the volume of archival material or the fact that a narrative could be formed around such seemingly random pieces of the past. The film is ultimately more remarkable than its style or its methods. What more can you ask for?
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