There are gothic tales of horror all around us, hidden in plain view. I had tastes of several growing up, something about my own, weird upbringing made me very freak-friendly, but I never grokked the way darkness goes hand in hand with light until I moved New York City in the mid-1980s.
You would meet people, in bars, mostly, but occasionally at parties, in bookstores, through friends of friends of friends, whose fabulousness you just knew was incredibly hard-won. I didn't have a storybook childhood by any means, but there was (enough) money, stability and love to establish at least a foundation of normalcy to provide a reference point to the madness that followed. For example, my own overly-beautiful mother (as far as I know) was never subjected to repeated rounds of electroshock therapy, abandoned by my father when I was an infant or raped by a stranger in front of my eyes hours after we rolled into town on a Trailways bus.
All of these things happened to Jonathan Caouette, the writer-director-actor whose autobiographical documentary, Tarnation, took the film world by storm (four years ago, but more on that later.) Comprised of stills, film and video clips over at least 20 years, and originally edited entirely in iMovie, it's a haunting, mesmerizing look at what one wrong turn (in this case, falling off of a house rooftop) can do to a delicate soul and everything that touches her.
It's also a monumentally inspirational take on the power of the human spirit to prevail in the most horrific of circumstances. The film and video that Caouette pieces together to tell his story is clearly the film- and video-taking that kept him sane growing up in, to put it mildly, horrific circumstances. There are smidgins of film taken before even the very precocious filmmaker was ready to pick up a camera, but once those mini-digits were big enough to place "record", it would seem young Caouette was at the ready and up to the task. Part of what's so fascinating about the film is getting to see the artist in formation, on both sides of the camera (there's one particularly compelling bit where he plays a woman in distress to the camera.)
Of course, even his impressive facility with the very simple tool that is iMovie was vastly enhanced by the soundtrack. Like El Mariachi some 15 years earlier, the film was made for peanuts ($218.32 of them!) and repackaged for substantially more. (Note to budding DIY filmmakers: if we can't hear it right, we won't be able to see it right.)
But who am I to quibble with the addition of some great songs and high-priced, Sunday-go-to-meetin' sound editing? At its core, Tarnation is good, old-fashioned storytelling.
And I have never been one to turn down a good yarn...
- A great WIRED article on the making of Tarnation (for $218.32!!!)
- Tarnation: wikipedia entry
- Jonathan Caouette's blog
Image of Jonathan Caouette and his beautiful mother from the film, via WIRED online.