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Don’t Believe the Hype

Tarnation: A Film by Jonathan Caouette

For some time now it’s been clear that something special is happening in the world of documentary filmmaking. So much so that the next great film movement, at least in the Western world, may in fact be a documentary film movement. Evidence for this has come in the form of such provocative films as Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Corporation. Unfortunately, what exists now is merely the potential for a movement. The problem is that the cohesive vision and visionary radicalism that has made all great movements just isn’t there yet. Simply put, it’s time to celebrate the filmmakers who are working toward making this movement a reality and stop taking films with nothing to contribute seriously. First-time filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s much-lauded autobiographical documentary Tarnation is a prime example of a film that, quite simply, has nothing to contribute.

In terms of content, the film presents us with nothing less than the story of the filmmaker’s life, recounted for us by home videos and family photos. We hear (and see) all about Caouette’s absent father, his mother’s struggle with mental illness, his struggle with his homosexuality, his drug abuse, etc. But in the end, so what? All of these issues have been treated before by myriad artists, psychologists, and sociologists. Caouette merely presents his issues to elicit sympathy from his audience and gives us nothing in return. Great artistic content has always led its viewers in some way to question the world around them. In contrast, Caouette engages in emotional manipulation; his film tries to make its way to the heart without the brain catching on.

So, if Caouette’s film does not meet the requirements for radical content, what about form? The one quality that makes the film bearable is that Caouette is willing to experiment. Caouette takes full advantage of the effects offered by Apple Computer’s iMovie video-editing software to liberally add special effects and filter images. Unfortunately for Caouette, radical form has lost its radicalism. All the great artistic movements of the twentieth century, or at least the most notable, had their foundation in form. Surrealism, Dada, experimental cinema, and atonality were all grounded on radical form. It was through experimentation in form that established norms and values were undermined and attacked. Today, form no longer shocks or undermines. It is part of the mainstream. Ironically, we see it most often in advertising. Experimentation in form that was once used as a means to experientially liberate people has become a means to manipulate them.

Caouette’s film has been praised by filmmakers (Gus Van Sant) and critics (Roger Ebert) alike, but it doesn’t really offer anything to its audience. What makes the film so interesting is that it is the complete opposite of what the films of a successful and significant documentary film movement would have to be. Caouette’s film relies on radicalism of form, while the films of a documentary film movement will have to rely on radical content. Its content manipulates emotions, while films that are part of a documentary movement will have to offer content that is intellectually provocative.

Documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Mark Achbar (The Corporation), or any one of the numerous others who have released films with exciting social and cultural critiques, have recognized the need to move in this direction. They are not yet visionary enough to be seen as part of a movement, but with each film they become exponentially more daring (take for example Avi Lewis’s and Naomi Klein’s outstanding recent film The Take). Meanwhile, filmmakers like Jonathan Caouette try to feed us more of the same.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2004

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