16 November 2004

Tarnation...wow. Hard to know where to begin here. For a movie that allegedly cost something like two hundred dollars to produce, it covers a lot of ground. It completes an American trilogy of messed-up family pictures that began with Crumb and continued with Capturing the Friedmans. But it's both less and more than a documentary. It reminds me of one of those avant-garde video installations at the Museum of Modern Art where a single television screen in a dark room displays grainy, disturbing images alternating with even more disturbing text. At a museum, you'd watch the video for about ten seconds and move on to the next atrocity. What would eighty minutes of it be like? At times, it's a little like watching a feature-length version of the video in The Ring.

But really, it isn't like that at all. I'm trying, inadequately, to describe one of the most uncanny, mysterious experiences I've had at the movies in a long time. Tarnation is often horrifying. It's often embarrassing, too, as the director keeps the camera running way, way, way beyond the audience's comfort level. But there are also moments that are like vindications of the video medium itself. Watching Tarnation, you might easily come to the conclusion that the movies were invented so that eleven-year-old Jonathan Caouette could hide in a darkened room with a headscarf and perform his eerie drag show as a battered Southern housewife. And the brief glimpses we get of his camp musical version of Blue Velvet are mind-blowing.

Anyway, Tarnation isn't a movie that I can recommend to everyone. It may be too twisted and personal to become the indie or queer movie classic that it truly deserves to be. But if you're in New York and curious about where cinema might be headed in the next decade, or just want to know more about what it might be like to grow up gay in a red state, you need to make a trip to the Film Forum.

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