Seen at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic

It would be cruel to label as self-indulgent this highly personal and obviously painfully made and lived experimental feature; but I’m tempted. Someone from the Sundance Institute, who also programs for the KVIFF, introduced Tarnation as being mostly about the filmmaker’s mother. It’s hard to see this. Although his mother is featured prominently at the beginning of the film, and most effectively at the end, this film is so full of Jonathan Cauoette – portrait after portrait, video after video, film after film, face after face after face after face…uh, you get the idea…that it was hard for me to come away from it thinking about anyone or anything else. I guess that’s Cauoette’s intent and whether or not you like this film might depend on whether or not you like – well, that might be asking too much – It might depend on whether or not you at least sympathize with Cauoette, whose life was certainly full of abuse. Whether or not this film does his life some justice I’m still thinking about, which is probably some sort of recommendation, if you like.

Tarnation’s IMDB page describes the film as a “documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother — a mixture of snapshots, Super-8, answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, and more — culled from 19 years of his life.” The footage is also heavily manipulated, digitally, I presume; at least a lot of the footage featuring Cauoette himself is altered or enhanced or garishly colored. The footage of his mother, and pretty much everyone one else in his family, is also manipulated, but less so. In fact, the film’s most harrowing moments come in an extended verite take shot late in his mother’s life showing her complete mental disintegration (she had just returned from the hospital after a lithium overdose): she vamps it up incoherently, dancing and cackling crazily, with a pumpkin. It’s truly awful to watch and I can’t imagine what made Cauoette put it into international distribution.

The mirror of this sequence is old Super-8 footage of himself at 11-years-old camping it up and acting the parts of various women, one named Sharlita, I think, all of whom had been abused by the men in their lives. Cauoette can’t resist playing with this footage, creating jump cuts and coloring the film stock but when his instincts are good – that is, when he’s not just aping the last 50 years of underground filmmaking technique – he’s a powerful filmmaker. This sequence of that precocious, obviously gay and obviously talented but also obviously fucked-up kid, is almost as powerful as that of his mother’s with the pumpkin. And as embarrassing.

What’s interesting about this sequence, and one of the few things I find interesting about the whole movie, is how transparently inarticulate Cauoette is, verbally I mean. The titles that overlay a rough narrative onto the experimental visuals are flat and emotionless while the images rampaging around them are anything but. Similarly, when Cauoette speaks in the film, except for when he’s playing someone else, he always sounds like a child and I was constantly confused and surprised by his chronological age as opposed to the emotional one he’s projecting. In that context, in an effort to communicate, his manic use of every cinematic trick in the book becomes quite touching, if ultimately not quite enough.

Whatever cathartic pleasure he felt editing and manipulating some of this painful footage — and I can completely understand the need for that — I would have thought had to have been exhausted by the time he made the decision to actually put it into circulation. Doing so he invites audiences to judge him. Maybe that’s what he wants. For my part, it’s certainly hard to forgive someone who so ruthlessly scrutinizes his family, putting cameras in their loopy faces all his life, all the while putting his mug, and his blank-faced and pretty New York boyfriend’s, up for nearly non-stop narcissistic display. That must be one of the things he’s trying to accomplish: “Look at me! I am pretty and I do live in New York – excuse me, Brooklyn – and have a nice – excuse me, great – apartment and I do have a cute boyfriend, all that good stuff has happened despite all the crap dumped on me all my life by my crazy family.”

All worth celebrating, surely; I’m just not sure anyone else should have to sit through it.