Sunday, April 14, 2013

Child abuse

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is a personal memoir by the 31-year-old director, composed primarily of still photographs and old home movies and some contemporary footage. It was edited on a Mac, and famously bears an official budget of $218. And, it seems, a lifetime of pain. Caouette’s parents split up before he was born, and his mother Renee, a former teenage model, went through years of hospitalization and electroshock therapy –which he suggests was less a considered treatment than a symptom of her own parents’ controlling malevolence. Caouette spent time with foster parents, who molested him, and then grew up with his grandparents, during which time he was frequently hospitalized. He knew he was gay early on and at 13 was sneaking into clubs; he experimented with drugs, and suffered a permanent reaction after smoking marijuana laced with PCP and formaldehyde. In his early twenties Caouette moved to New York where he entered an apparently stable relationship and forged a better relationship with his mother (long past her best days, particularly after a lithium overdose in 2002). He even met his father for the first time.

Pop-Culture Nightmare

The film has the feeling of a pop-culture nightmare, telling most of the story through large, simply worded captions that initially carry the sense of a fairy tale, accompanied by music like “Wichita Linesman”, while images flash on the screen. From around the age of eleven Caouette was playing with Super 8 cameras, and as a teenager he made “underground” movies with titles like The Ankle Slasher and The Goddamn Whore, which appear from what we see of them to have a stark, sleazy power. In school he and a friend staged a musical version of Blue Velvet, using music by Marrianne Faithfull. The main cultural reference points in his apartment seem to be the likes of Carrie and The Exorcist.

Caouette thus has an intuitive feeling for sensationalism as a window on real neurosis, and expertly marshals his materials in this direction. At one point, depicting himself flicking channels, he expertly creates a montage out of Rosemary’s Baby, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, and other odd-looking stuff I didn’t recognize. This is all hovering at the edge of camp of course, and Caouette has earlier shown us a monologue – amazingly shot when he was 11 – in which he dressed up in drag and delivers to the camera an agonized account of feminine trauma. His agony appears real, but it seems likely that the young Jonathan already understood both the reality of life’s horrors and their mythological possibilities.

The film has some vague similarity to last year’s Capturing the Friedmans as an excavation of domestic traumas, and like that film, Tarnation depicts both the absurdity of family structures and the pain of their absence. It always feels showy and shameless, carrying a quasi-glam rock quality, and yet appearing like the guiltiest of secrets. It will be interesting to see if Caouette has any more films in him. The most conscious parts of Tarnation are presumably the present-day segments that were shot after the conception of the film had taken solid shape, and at these moments his instincts are conventional – he shoots one last monologue in which he seems to be too consciously willing himself to tears, and then he lays his finger on his sleeping mother’s lips, lies next to her and goes to sleep. “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should...,” says a monologue (from Desiderata) playing in the background, “ is still a beautiful world.” Throughout the film, Caouette transforms ugliness into a spectacle without negating its essence – it’s difficult to see the closing note of comfort as the optimum arrival point.

Moments Choisis

Tarnation was one of last year’s most acclaimed films – it made the top 20 in the Film Comment critics’ poll. I admire the film, and yet I find it difficult to summon my deepest enthusiasm for it. A couple of days before I saw the film, I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinema at the Cinematheque. The film is a 90-minute summary of some chosen moments from Godard’s multipart Histoire(s) du Cinema – it’s clearly less easily accessible than Tarnation and not as immediately enjoyable. But among much that one could say about it, maybe the most obvious comment is how little cinema Godard’s purported history of the medium actually contains –and what it contains is often fleeting, seen only in stills, or not readily identifiable. It discourses on painting and physics and history and philosophy, understanding that the history of cinema is that of the last century (and vice versa), and that a chronology or celebration of the medium would be merely a sop, when we still think so little about the nature of its beauty or its frequent submission to ideology. At the same time, it realizes the fallacy of objectivity or of dispassionate illumination.

In contrast, Tarnation conveys doubt about many things, but the film ultimately feels overly certain of its parameters, conveying a certain ideological submissiveness. It could have been about the creation of our sense of the past, or the formation of adult sexuality, or about ideas of mental illness and dysfunction, but no, for no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. The film’s outrage is muted for being too wholly based in personal neurosis. I do not mean this to sound too heavy a complaint – the film’s existence is a minor miracle. But you know, more than we acknowledge, minor miracles abound in our world.

The Woodsman

After seeing Tarnation I went to see Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman. Kevin Bacon plays a child molester who’s released from prison after twelve years and tries to rebuild his life. He gets a steady job as a woodcutter, falls into a relationship with a strong-willed woman (Kyra Sedgwick) and makes slow progress toward repairing his broken bonds with his family, but despite knowing that one more offense will send him back to jail for life, he puts himself in the path of temptation. A couple of sequences, where he trails young girls in the mall and (especially) where he lures a 12-year-old to get close to him in the park, are utterly creepy.

The film’s primary object, presumably, is to increase our understanding of even an extreme transgressor such as Bacon, and it’s quite brave in daring us to acknowledge the burgeoning sexuality of pre-pubescent girls (perhaps the film could only possibly have been made by a woman). The actor communicates effectively the depth of the character’s pain, and as circumstances go against him, we understand how the ongoing visibility of sexual offenders might destroy their hopes of rehabilitation. Ultimately though, the film seems substantially too easy and schematic. It juxtaposes Bacon with another molester whom he watches from his window, hanging around the schoolyard across the street, and this provides him with too easy an opportunity for redemption. It suggests that Bacon’s offense is more common than society allows, which as presented here seems like a little too much rationalization. In this regard, its relatively short running time (less than 90 minutes) and small number of characters work against the development of much context or complexity. Finally, The Woodsman feels more like a fragment than a fully developed character study.     

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