experimental documentary that reminds me of a cross between the experimentation of decasia, the music and lost childhood themes of boards of canada and a “normal” personal documentary like sherman’s march. that said, in many ways the film is more a film than a documentary because of its stylistic impressions which convey mood more than story and because of its obvious creation of scenes such as the final image of the filmmaker laying his head next to his mother’s. this, though, has been a question in documentary cinema since its beginning – with nanook of the north during the filming of which flaherty asked nanook to alter his everyday routine for the sake of the film. flaherty did this to an even greater extent in man of aran which was more a recreation of fact mixed with myth, than a documentary.
what’s important isn’t the definition of the film’s genre, rather it’s the impact of said film; and tarnation carries plenty of impact. the narrative takes us back to the meeting of the filmmaker’s grandparents, walks us through their marriage, the birth of his mother, his birth, his father leaving without knowing of him, his mother’s rape and his many troubles with mental illness. during this portion of the film text on the screen gives us the history in a third person point of view while using pictures, video and music to match the plot. it’s a harrowing and intense piece of filmmaking and it’s one that you don’t see in documentary and usually don’t like to see in a conventionally narrated picture because it might come off as lazy or simple. but in this case it works because we need to get the history to understand the present and the only way this history can be recapped is if someone tells it to us. generally documentaries will try to fill in this sort of information through interviews and intertitles, but i felt this method worked rather well and was more intense than the conventional.
when people say a film is a “human” portrait, i’m not quite sure what they mean. there are a lot of attributes that seem uniquely human, and many of them aren’t very flattering. usually, though, the adjective has a positive connotation. we think of a human portrait as an emotional, sensitive, multi-faceted, sympathetic look at an individual. i think that’s what this film is. that said, jonathan caouette isn’t the most sympathetic of filmmakers/subjects, but given the history he shows in this picture, it’s not easy to to slight him for who he is and what he’s done. in some ways i thought him weak, confused, self-indulgent or too prone to self-pity. however, he is, ultimately, the epitome of humanity – flawed, disturbed, selfish, ugly, beautiful, kind, and (nonsensically) hopeful.
p.s. a pretty good soundtrack featuring (among others) iron & wine, low and magnetic fields.