Lauren Wilson
Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography, p.3

Proving that special effects do not a horror film make, the more traditional shots can also be the most frightening. A desperately long-held shot of Renee singing frantically about a pumpkin (“Do the pumpkin! Do the pumpkin!” she sings to “La Cucaracha”) is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire film. (Other delusional bits of song include the Jewish hymn “Ein Keloheinu;” Caouette and his family are Jewish, and clearly, from his mother’s knowledge of the Sabbath liturgy, actively so. Yet this aspect of his life is barely explored in the film.) As I watched this scene, I even began to feel that creepy sense of exploitation that most documentaries inspire when they are down in the trenches with their subjects. But most of all, I rejoiced that I was finally being shown, instead of told, why Caouette’s life was worth documenting. Perhaps there was more of this ‘showing’ in the first cut of the film, which ran three hours and premiered at MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Video/Film Festival. Perhaps Caouette had even more time in that cut to let the veils of style drop away.

What should be the memorable moment of bonding between mother and son, placed at the end of the film, appears even more deliberately staged than much of Caouette’s teenaged theatrics. This ending scene mirrors and completes the beginning sequence in which Jonathan has just awoken from a nightmare, in a coincidence that is too neat to feel real. In this closing scene, Jonathan’s mother, now come to live with him in New York, has fallen asleep on the couch. Jonathan ends up sitting asleep beside her, his head tucked near hers, as a distinctively Southern-sounding voiceover reading “Desiderata” urges: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars . . . Be at peace . . . With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

If this scene were not so staged and so self-conscious, I might have felt a tear rise. Instead I felt merely weary. “Desiderata” is here because Caouette’s world is built on such semi-cheesy cultural references. I don’t think he’d trust himself to create his own not-quite-profound ending voiceover, and I don’t think he would want to. Consequently, Tarnation is still a dramatically staged piece whose subject is, perhaps, the failed attempt to document and control the fate of an articulate, talented, self-obsessed self.

The film succeeds as professional demo, and as an artifact of exhibitionism. Yet, surprisingly for such an intimate film, it fails at providing a narrative of personal discovery. Of course, Caouette’s astonishing creativity will guarantee him a good choice of film projects in the next few years. His talent for manipulating the surface texture of a film can make him a commercially successful director of music videos, commercials, or movies. But, without more, it won’t make him a great filmmaker. This film left me giddy but untouched; high on images -- but dry.

[1]       [2]       3

Lauren Wilson recently graduated from Yale with a degree in Film Studies and concentration in documentary production. As well as filming her own feature-length personal documentary she has worked on a BBC documentary series. She now works in the curatorial department of The Museum of Television & Radio.

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