review by Joe Swanberg
I saw Tarnation at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. The film hasn't opened theatrically yet, and hasn't had a chance to be overlooked, but maybe Roger can predict the film's future.
Tarnation is a personal documentary by a filmmaker named Jonathan Caouette. He pulls together years of home video footage and still photographs to tell the story of his mother, his grandparents, and himself. Since the birth of the camcorder, parents have been videotaping away while their children open presents and play soccer, but Caouette shot most of the footage in the film himself, starting at a pretty young age. We are treated to some amazing footage of a pre-teen Caouette in drag, reenacting a character from a daytime talk show, and many early films that Caouette made with his friends.
With most home video footage gathering dust in a cabinet somewhere, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker use this footage to tell a personal story. I can see this as the first of a whole genre of filmmaking that uses old family video footage. Why shoot new footage when there is so much documentation ready to be edited together?
Tarnation is also of interest for it's lack of a voice-over. Caouette chooses to elaborate on the story with text on the screen, rather than his voice. I respect this choice, because film is a visual medium, and this is an interesting way to visually tell the story. There are many other experimental visual techniques used. Some work quite well, and some are a little on the cheesy side, but Caouette made the entire film using the Macintosh software, "iMovie," so you get what you get. It's a nice experiment in limitations.
I was left feeling drained, and also invigorated after seeing Tarnation. I feel like a got a little glimpse into the near future of digital filmmaking, and I'm excited about the possibilities. Tarnation was made for $218. With a budget like that, it's hard for the film to be anything but a success. Of course, in the long run it will cost much more to secure rights to the music in the film and strike prints, but there's incentive for filmmakers to start digging through those old home movies looking for interesting stories and nice visuals.