Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother -- a mixture of snapshots, Super-8, answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, and more -- culled from 19 years of his life.
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J. Michael Bailey,
Part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, and part acid trip. A psychedelic whirlwind of snapshots, Super-8 home movies, old answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, snippets of '80s pop culture, and dramatic reenactments to create an epic portrait of an American family travesty. The story begins in 2003 when Jonathan learns that his schizophrenic mother, Renee, has overdosed on her lithium medication. He is catapulted back into his real and horrifying family legacy of rape, abandonment, promiscuity, drug addiction, child abuse, and psychosis. As he grows up on camera, he finds the escapist balm of musical theater and B horror flicks and reconnects to life through a queer chosen family. Then a look into the future shows Jonathan as he confronts the symbiotic and almost unbearable love he shares with his beautiful and tragically damaged mother. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
A psychedelic "Better Than Chocolate"--and as trite.
A $200-some-odd initial budget is no excuse for a dull, self-indulgent film that offers little or no insight into either a young man's life or his times.
I was initially drawn to the film by both the subject matter and the fact that John Cameron Mitchell (creator of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") was an executive producer. After seeing "Hedwig," I trusted Mitchell's artistic judgment completely---only to guess after seeing "Tarnation" that Mitchell must have been swayed by some sort of internal "pay it forward" guilt-trip to professionally help out a fellow young-ish gay filmmaker. (Disclaimer: I'm gay myself and very much appreciate gay or gender-bending film-making---when it's well done. This film, though, was like a psychedelic version of the incredibly gooey "Better Than Chocolate"---as in "I'm a sensitive gay person and I've been through a lot---love me!" Ick.)
Director/star Caouette apparently had about 15 minutes-worth of interesting home-video footage of himself as a child growing up with his once-institutionalized mother and oddball grandparents. And a few minutes of vanity shots of himself as a teenager with friends and as an adult with his boyfriend. The rest of the movie consists primarily of long, drawn-out filler---pseudo-freaky graphics and music superimposed over photos of Caouette posing. Not to mention the subtitles, especially at the beginning, that take 20 frames to relay a bit of information when they could have taken 2 or 3. (I read other reviews here before posting this; someone wrote that he/she saw people in the theater walking out during the first 10 minutes, and that they must have been either gay-intolerant or unfamiliar with non-mainstream film-making...My own guess is that they must have just been extremely bored with the by-now-clichéd MTV-style video sequence.)
Caouette's mother's story is truly tragic. Her own parents are tragic. Caouette's abusive upbringing in foster homes is tragic. But I know this only intellectually from the film, via the facts presented in the subtitles. Caouette isn't able to evoke an actual sense of pathos or understanding with either his photographs or his video interviews. How, for instance, did he escape the bizarre family cycle? Like Caouette, I also began hanging out in area punk clubs as a teen... It was an extremely visceral, life-changing feeling of acceptance for me. And for Caouette? He met a boyfriend. And a couple of club friends. You see a couple of bland photographs of them and maybe a minute of video of the guys mugging for the camera. Nothing else to give anyone viewing a sense of either the era or for what Caouette himself was feeling.
Then he moves to New York City. There, Cute Boyfriend David is very understanding and hugs Jonathan whenever he gets a (video-recorded) call from his weird mother. The two frolic in the snow. The utter vapidity makes me wish for the crazy mom and grandparents to re-appear. (They do, they do. But rather too late to salvage the film.) I also wonder why Caouette didn't reveal in the film that he'd had a kid with a girlfriend years earlier. Probably because this doesn't quite fit into the forced "My Sensitive Boyfriend Is All I Have After My Crazy Mother" theme. It would, though, have made much better film sense as part of the bigger picture of "dysfunctional family dynamics"(and been more honest, as part of a documentary).
Near the end of the film, Caouette tries hard to make us feel something by looking "sincerely" into the camera and telling us he hopes that he doesn't turn out like his mother, then wiping away a tear... He's trying desperately to be sincere, but after seeing earlier clips of his put-on antics, the effect is more schmaltzy than credible.
Caouette's actual family situation seems to have been very intense and disturbing, but again, you learn that primarily from the subtitles and not from the actual footage. He's barely been able to get anyone in his family to open up to him on camera (unless you count his mother's "pumpkin dance" near the end of the film, which seems more like anyone's unfortunate attempt to entertainingly mug for the camera rather than an example of "look at the tragedy that my mother has become"----since we've never learned what his mother was like to begin with).
The sparse actual footage of this film is put together with a lot of bells and whistles, but there's no "there" there. And certainly no family there, only an attempt at an "American Gothic" portrait that falls short due to its transparent attempts at being "hip" and convincing.
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