December 5th, 2004



Because the commercial theatres in Iowa City are in the pre-christmas doldrums, I went and saw Tarnation last night. "Tarnation" is an autobiographical collage of the lives of Jonathan Caouette and his Mother Renee. Renee has spent her whole life in and out of mental hospitals, and Jonathan was taken away from her at the age of four and placed in abusive foster homes, then later adopted by his grandparents, who seemed scarely more sane than their prodigal daughter.

From an early age Jonathan recorded film and video of his family and himself, which gave him a large body of raw footage to use for this movie, which he initially assembled on a Mac using iMovie. He attracted the patronage of Gus Van Sant, who found the money to make this into a theatrical release, and it has been a movie festival hit, now making the rounds of College Cinema.

It immediately reminds me of my sis-in-law's Tessa's movie Five Wives. Both are about Texas childhoods, and difficult parents. Tessa's film is a lot calmer and less raw. Caouette's is not always pleasant to watch, but both movies are moving meditation on parenthood. What keeps "Tarnation" from being merely a narcissistic excersise (though it is that) is the remarkable, tragic character of his mother, someone who is both movie star beautiful and emotionally naked. The worst parts of the movie are the start and end sequences that were obviously staged, but at the same time they do provide a needed frame for the chaotic, searing, middle section.

Perhaps the best lesson of "Tarnation" is that it shows how affordable video technology allows for people to make truly individual art, without the constraints of budget or time that are part of commercial cinema. Of course for every "Tarnation" there will be hundreds of dreadful movies, but that doesn't matter. Commercial Cinema has way too much talent chasing way too little money, and the demands of the money subvert creativity and art in the process.