"Tarnation": Scary Movie
"Tarnation" is the most harrowing sort of horror story — a real one. Culled from 20 years of home-movie footage by the now 31-year-old director, Jonathan Caouette, it relates, in hallucinatory and sometimes frightening detail, the unhappy life of Caouette's mother, Renee LeBlanc. It begins with a montage of aging photos that transport us back to a small town in Texas in the 1950s. Renee is a bright, happy little girl, so beautiful she sometimes works as a child model; she's a local star. Then one day, at age 12, she falls off the roof of a building. Her creepy parents don't believe she's been injured, as she claims, and they send her into electroshock "therapy" to straighten her out. It is the beginning of a terrible journey. "She would walk outside," Caouette says, "and feel as if the sun would make her evaporate."
Renee marries young, but her husband soon takes off, leaving her pregnant with Jonathan. She is in and out of psychiatric hospitals. In 1975, "in a psychotic state," as Jonathan says, she takes her young son on a bus trip to Chicago, where she is assaulted and raped in front of his eyes by a stranger. During the ride home, Renee, acting erratically, is kicked off the bus and then arrested. Jonathan is seized and put into foster care. During this period, he is sometimes tied up and beaten. He is also sexually molested. Back in Texas, meanwhile, his grandparents have given their consent for Renee to receive more shock treatments.
By the early '80s, retrieved from foster-care hell by his grandparents, Jonathan has started trying to make sense of his life by filming it with a succession of cheap cameras. He has accepted the fact that he's homosexual with no fuss. ("I've always been gay," he says. "I don't know if it's from the molesting or not. I'm just lusty for everything.") We see him done up as a drag queen, delivering long monologues into the camera. We see him at a rock club with his new-wave friends. We hear the story of his 1986 encounter with a marijuana dealer, who gave him two joints to try: Jonathan smoked them one after another, and got very sick. It turned out they'd been laced with PCP and dipped in formaldehyde. His personality begins to unravel; he feels as if he is "living in a dream." He begins staging weekly suicide attempts.
That same year, Jonathan starts shooting Super-8 home movies — violent little films with titles like "The Ankle Slasher" and "Spit and Blood Boys." In his high school theater arts course, he stages a musical version of "Blue Velvet," with all the actors lip-synching to Marianne Faithfull songs. Renee calls in from whatever institution she's confined to. ("I'm doing a lot better," she says.) As the years pass, we see more of her: dancing around manically as she leers into the camera, or sitting on a lawn staring down at her smoldering cigarette, telling the boy behind the camera, "You won't have a family if I die. You'll have no one." Says Jonathan: "I love my mother so much."
In 1997, Jonathan flees Texas and moves to New York, where he starts working as an actor. When he learns that Renee, still back in Texas, has overdosed on the lithium she's been taking and has sustained brain damage, he brings her to New York to live in a Brooklyn apartment with him and his boyfriend, David. There he dotes on her, and films her constantly, even while she sleeps. "I can't escape her," he says. "She lives inside me." Her beauty — the beauty of her long-ago, wasted youth — still glimmers around the edges of her madness, and it's haunting. Especially when we learn that a survey of her medical records over the years has determined that, before the electroshocks, before all the heavy meds and the hospitals, there was never anything wrong with her, mentally, in the first place. Nothing.
"Tarnation" is a powerful and unsparing movie; it's sometimes painful to watch. The film was created — edited, mixed, and layered with simple but vividly evocative effects — on an iMac, using the pre-installed iMovie software. Its total cost was $218.32. (Another $400,000 — raised with the help of directors Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell, who've served as executive producers — has been required to clear the movie's many music and film clips, to do a final mix and to strike prints.) Whether or not Jonathan Caouette ever finds another subject as intensely compelling as his mother's appalling life, this debut film will stand as a small triumph, a tribute to the salvaging power that love can sometimes wield over fear and confusion, loss and despair. A tribute to hope.
"Primer": Lost in Translation
"Primer," a 78-minute sci-fi movie that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is hung on the hook of an intriguing idea, which I think I'd best tell you about, since sitting through the film itself doesn't really do that job.
In a Dallas suburb, four young engineers spend their after-work hours running a start-up gadget-invention company out of a home garage. They natter and mumble at each other in a near-impenetrable type of tech-talk. Two of them, Aaron and Abe, split off from the team to pursue their own little breakthrough. Cannibalizing parts from cars and refrigerators, they've built a box that — in a process involving a superconductor and a mysterious fungus — shifts time backwards: Climb into it at 3 p.m. and you'll walk back out at 9 in the morning. One of the first things they proceed to do with this excellent contraption is make a killing on the stock market, checking out which stocks are shooting up in the afternoon, then hopping into the box for a bit, jumping out in the near past and snapping up those stocks in advance, at lowball prices.
But there's an unanticipated side effect of this process: It generates doubles. Whenever one of the men takes an afternoon box trip back to that morning, he encounters his earlier self. And if that earlier self, making his way through the day, later pops into the time-travel box himself ... well, you can imagine the confusion. (Not to mention the multiplying profusion of identical cell phones, among other things.)
Intriguing, as I say. Unfortunately, "Primer" is virtually incoherent — or it was to me. There's no real exposition; the plot is offered up in a mystifying drizzle of overlapping dialogue. The acting is flat, the sets drab, and the music (skeletal piano tinklings over gently ominoso synth beds) doesn't always relate to what's happening onscreen. The movie has "indie darling" written all over it, and normally I'd advise giving it a pass. But wait:
"Primer" was created by a 31-year-old engineer named Shane Carruth, who spent three years teaching himself how to make a movie and one year writing a script, then took the starring role (of Aaron) and went ahead and directed, edited and scored the film over the course of five weeks, at a cost of about $7,000. Given this sub-basement budget, it's remarkable that Carruth came up with even a semi-watchable picture. (A fellow Texan, El Paso fertilizer salesman Hal Warren, attempted the same sort of one-man-movie stunt back in 1966, but all he came up with was the immortally awful "Manos: The Hands of Fate." Carruth is more talented than Warren; but then Warren had no talent.)
The fledgling director could have saved even more money by shooting this film on digital; but he wanted the grainy look of film. He went with 16 millimeter, and while a few nighttime sequences are ridiculously dim, the movie does have a look and a feel of its own. Unfortunately, it mostly feels like you're looking at two guys standing around talking tech, or sitting around talking tech, or taking a break from tech talk to quibble about whether to have steak or tacos for dinner, then tossing a football back and forth, or unwrapping a muffin or pouring out a glass of milk, talking tech all the while. The movie so effectively distills the formless behavioral sludge of real life that it almost makes you want to go out and see a good movie. Shane Carruth may one day make one.