Cauouette’s dreamlike editing technique shows off his stylishness as a new film artist. This film at times seems less like a documentary concerned with a particular experience, or experience in general, than a calling card, a set-piece of artistic self-promotion. Caouette is clearly aware of (and heavily quotes) the filmmakers who have come before him, and this film feels like the statement of a self-conscious ‘new young talent’ : it is more scrupulous self-exhibition than scrupulous self-examination. This is a deliberate entrée into filmmaking, not an unschooled, homegrown production as some press materials might have one believe. For example, Caouette demonizes his grandparents with shots that consciously echo the Maysles brothers’ 1975 study in family decrepitude, Grey Gardens. He also lists outright such underground films as Liquid Sky (1982) and Christiane F. (1981) as influences. True, Caouette’s initial production costs were $218, the number constantly floated around in critical response to the film, but by the time of the theatrical release, they were at least $400,000, with John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) on board as executive producers.
Sacrificing substance in pursuit of style, Caouette has, on some level, created an 88-minute preview for a main feature that never plays. But, oh, what a beautiful preview it is. Caouette’s flashing image compilations, backed by an excess of the finest in independent music from The Magnetic Fields and Low, may be the most maddeningly distancing, self-aggrandizing sequences of the film. But they are arguably also the most intoxicating visual achievement yet in the world of documentary. Out of Caouette’s overweening solipsism – his notion that life is a dream, HIS dream to be exact, in which all others are merely the supporting cast – comes the best stuff that such solipsism can produce.
Solipsism and the sense of a life staged and rearranged for the camera – especially in the many shots of Jonathan’s (admittedly very photogenic) face looking straight at the camera in a variety of rather self-obsessed poses and characters -- is also a classic queer aesthetic move. In the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, or the influential drag-ball documentary Paris is Burning (1990), this aesthetic conceives of life as a staged drama in which nothing is authentic or real, in which the only substance is in fact style. Caouette, who is gay, and who put on drag shows for the camera at the age of 11, may be drawing upon that aesthetic. Yet this kind of unreality and near-delusional self-absorption goes against the alleged aim of this film, which is to help Caouette bring clarity to his life, to escape the fate of his delusional mother, and to escape his own guilt at being complicit in her fate.
However, it’s not always so. Especially in the latter half of the film, Caouette’s heavy veil of “dissociation” and stylishness actually falls away to some degree, and we see more continuous scenes of simply-shot footage. Perhaps this stylistic change is meant to mirror Caouette’s maturing self-image. As he comes to terms with himself as the dissociated, self-obsessed, talented gay man that he is, he can stand to show himself without multiple layers of special effects. The power of these stripped-down shots is evident in a scene in which Jonathan begs his mother to talk to him about her psychiatric experiences: “Will you just please help me with my stupid film?” he asks. “Mommy, this is the kind of shit you talk about all the time. . .”. Had Caouette truly wanted to pull us into the day-to-day reality of his relationship with his mother, instead of creating a rock opera about it, he ought to have put this scene much earlier.
This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
Am I Religious?
Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
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