Jonathan Caouette’s 2004 film ”Tarnation” blazed hot and bright as its maker cleaned up kudos on the indie awards circuit. Central to the marketing buzz about the film was the fact that it cost $218 to make on his iMac. The poster prominently displayed a quote by The Boston Globe, which called it ‘a heartbreaking work of staggering genius’.
The aesthetic approach to Tarnation was bound to irritate as many people as it gripped. Many people staggered out feeling like they’d taken part in a trial on the human response to sensory overstimulation.
Ironically considering the star, writer and director had been filming himself and his family obsessively for the previous 20 years, the visuals weren’t the strongest part of the film (despite their at-times assaultive nature).
The ‘story’ in Cauoette’s life was portrayed more by the on-screen text that chronicled the life of his mentally ill mother after her exposure to brutal shock therapy as a young woman. It was the ‘cure’ for a bad fall that all-but wiped her brain clean of her natural personality and left outbursts of bipolarism and manic depression.
The reason this review talks about ”Tarnation” so much is because ”Walk Away Renee” has everything you liked or didn’t like about it. Caouette, now nearing 40, is still trying to take care of his mother remotely by making sure she’s in the best care and not being given the wrong medication. He collects her from their native Houston to take her back to a mental illness facility near his home in New York and the film is an erstwhile road trip.
But the creative approach is so similar to its predecessor it could be ”Tarnation II”. The factual story is told through onscreen captions about Renee’s progress, and Caouette uses archive footage from his huge collection to give the story emotional context.
At some point, as with ”Tarnation”, you’ll wonder just who’s following him around with a camera in such a seemingly-staged fashion, even when his mother has one of several disturbing episodes.
The distributors admitted some of ”Tarnation” was recreated footage, but either way peering down a lens onto the innermost workings of the relationship makes you feel disturbed for him. Who else would use his family to set up scenes of such heartbreak and difficulty for a movie, and why is that so different from what the far less critically accepted Kardashian sisters do every week?
If you saw ”Tarnation” you know a lot of what happens in Walk Away Renee, including the decline of Adolph, the grandfather who raised Caouette. There’s little real resolution other than him moving his mother closer, as if the film is saying she’ll never be out of his hands – like a child he’ll have to manage as long as she lives rather than a parent.
It’s a worthy story of mental illness and the frustrations it can cause for family, but you can’t help feeling that if Caouette is such a heartbreaking genius, you’d like to see him do something completely different. Not that he doesn’t have a sad story to tell, but it’s luck more than anything that he’s been pointing a camera at himself and those around him so long. All he had to do was assemble it together in an artistic way – does that necessarily make him a good director?