Thursday, April 21, 2005

Sickened by Tarnation

Ok, I have been studying continuity editing WAY too much!

I saw a preview of the Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical film 'Tarnation' on Monday night and the sensory shock it inflicted on me made me physically sick for two days! For those of you not familiar with this festival favourite, Tarnation can be loosely described as an autobiographical documentary chronicling Caouette, a Texan-turned-New Yorker actor-come-filmmaker’s life. The main focus of the film is Caouette’s schizophrenic and institutionally abused mother and her effect on his own psychological development. The reason why such a “small” film has received such coverage and critical acclaim is its innovative use of existing still photographs, audio recordings, and home videos. This, melded together with Caouette’s camp aesthetic/personality/sexual development and his ability to push iMovie to its limits (the film was initially made on Caouette’s home iMac with no budget) makes the film as sensory shock to the system. In my case this shock was obviously literal!

I watched the film on the front row of a very small independent cinema (Cameo Edinburgh, check it out if you get the chance) and the rapid editing, constant visual manipulations (I didn’t know iMovie could make so many after-effects!), and stills-montage sequences bombarded my senses. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism, I thoroughly enjoyed his creative use of the graphical potential of the material he was working with. He managed to imbue the photographs and poorly filmed videos of his youth with an energy and “camp” vitality that perfectly suited the subject matter. However, watching an entire film constructed from one such montage sequence after another is exhausting. And to top it off the subject matter isn’t exactly easy going either.

Caouette is obviously a very talented creative editor and he does seem to realise that his film can verge on being too much at times. He periodically presents calm soundtracked sequences of travelling landscapes which serve as a well needed respite but no sooner have you regained composure than he is plunging headfirst into another sensory and emotionally exhausting sequence. In reflection I think the brutality of this film when viewed on a big screen may actually be due to Caouette’s inability to think outside of the iMovie preview window. This is a common error made by rookie editors and is also those trained on television before moving to cinema. Their shots are often too close and too short. This works fine when viewed at a small viewing angle in a living room (in fact, it is preferable) but when projected on a cinema screen there is just too much on the screen for the eye to take in at one time. As the shots are also shorter the viewer doesn’t have time to scan the image with their eyes and pick up the important details and so they can often experience a sense of sea-sickness as the images move across their retinas in an unpredictable fashion.

This is my excuse for why I left the cinema feeling rather ill. That and the dodgy beer and chocolates I ate during the screening (if checking out the Cameo cinema, don’t drink the Stella Artois).

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