Independent films spark new discussions

Caouette poses for a photograph as a toddler with his brain-damaged mother, Renee, before being sent to a foster home.

By Emily Eiermann

“This is what this generation is doing,” communication professor Dr. Thomas Simonet said. “This is something you’re not going to see on MTV. This is the next step. This is what’s coming.”

“What’s coming” is the Indie Film Festival, taking place on campus on March 2 and 3 in Sweigart Auditorium.

The film and media studies department is having two days full of indie films as this year’s addition to the annual film festival series at Rider, showing better-known independent films and student works. This gives students a chance to show their work and have it judged by faculty. Those interested in film can also learn about the economics and politics involved from talks by professors.

One of the more well-known films is Tarnation.

Tarnation is a “low-budget” indie film by Jonathan Caouette that is centered around his troubled adolescence. It is praised for being made for $218 on the free Apple program iMovie, but the cost of production to get it ready for competition probably increased it to a few thousand dollars.

Regardless of the increase in price, there is no disputing that this is an independent film. Made as a compilation of photographs, time-relevant movie clips, family videos and a broad range of music, the movie is, at first glace, a random assortment of memories from his early life. Rather than having a typically steady flow, there are choppy transitions and sudden noises that help create a true amateur vibe to it. This only adds to the raw emotion of the piece.

The video begins with a clip of Jonathan’s brain-damaged mother Renee singing “This Little Light of Mine” as she walks through the kitchen. While this upbeat song should create a carefree atmosphere, in this scene it seems a bit off, as the filmmaker intended. Music is randomly interspersed throughout the film, both upbeat and dark, sometimes starkly contrasting with the topic being depicted. When Caouette recounts his abuse at his foster home, there is upbeat music in the background, sounding almost hopeful. On most occasions, however, ominous music sets the tone, particularly when paired with videos of him passing a graveyard. It poses a similar effect that the sound of young children singing slowly in horror movies do, and is enough to send a chill down your spine.

Of course, there is much more to the movie than the soundtrack. The tell-all approach of the documentary brings dark secrets of Caouette’s past to light. Voicemails, videos and text reveal his early struggles, including finding his place in society as a gay man, depicting drug use, childhood abuse and his eventual, numerous hospitalization.

One of the most emotional scenes includes a monologue at age 11. Hair tied back in a bandana, Caouette puts himself in the shoes of an abused housewife, describing different scenes where his character is tied to a bed and threatened by her husband. While obviously acting and not merely delusional, the raw emotion radiating from his performance and the ability to act out such scenes as a young child is chilling.

While the movie documents his life, it focuses a large amount on his mother. Renee went through electroshock therapy when she was younger for no apparent reason, resulting in a psychological meltdown. She switches from one emotion to the next without warning or obvious cause, and was eventually deemed incapable of caring adequately for her children. Her life and impact on Caouette’s experiences is one of the focal points of the video, earning the appearance of her name on the credits before even Caouette’s.

The movie is relentless in its stimulation, never giving the audience a chance to recover from the emotional distress inflicted on the viewer in each scene. The fact that all of the video, apart from a few clips from movies, are real memories and recordings of true events only add to the turmoil. Of course, the audience should take into account the fact that in most scenes, the video camera was set up in the room prior to conversations and recordings. This could have resulted in scripted dialogue and a bit of acting, especially when considering Jonathan’s background as an actor. However, all things considered, even if scripted Tarnation is a compelling story for the strong-hearted.

Tarnation will be screened twice more on March 1 and 2, with the latter accompanied by a talk by Caouette at 7 p.m.

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