TARNATION written and directed by Jonathan Caouette, produced by Caouette and Stephen Winter, with Caouette and Renee Leblanc. 88 minutes. A Capri release. Opens Friday (January 21). For venues and times, see Movies, page 85. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Breaking rules is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is failing in a spectacular manner. But breaking rules for its own sake isn't good enough, and failing remarkably is still failure.
So it is with Tarnation, a documentary I wanted to like, if only out of sympathy for its director and subject, Jonathan Caouette. But however horrific the story he tells, his telling is lousy.
Caouette was raised in rural Texas by his grandparents while his mother, Renee Leblanc, was in and out of mental institutions. It's a heart-rending tale, but Tarnation suffers from we'll-fix-it-in-post syndrome. That is, if the cuts are fast enough, no one will realize the white areas are burned out and the audio is crap.
The screen is filled with flashing photos, home movie footage and jumbled pop culture snippets that comment on our media-saturated age. The onscreen text that refers to Caouette in the third person is meant to illustrate his own mental condition: depersonalization disorder, characterized by a feeling of separation from oneself.
But the use of text breaks the first rule of storytelling ("Show, don't tell"). Juxtaposed against unrelated images (Leblanc dances while we read about young Caouette smoking formaldehyde-laced marijuana), the words ruin the images' clarity.
The rapid-fire edits and third-person self-references make Caouette come off as someone raised on MTV who interviewed himself in the bathtub while dreaming of being famous.
Though the director calls Tarnation a love letter to his mother, the film is very much about him. She's often onscreen, but we get no real sense of her as a person.
Digital filmmaking has been heralded as a democratizing force. Now anyone can tell a story.
But the fact that you can doesn't mean you'll do it well.