Tarnation Revisited

Just a qick link to this New York Times article on Jonathan Caouette, whose documentary, Tarnation, was a popular success at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. I discussed this film several months ago after it was mentioned in cinema minima, and now that I’m working on my Capturing the Friedmans paper, I’m really intrigued by this concept. Caoette’s self-documentary uses video footage (he recorded over 160 hours) to tell the story of his difficult youth.

Like David Friedman who videotaped his family’s arguments to gain an emotional distance from what was happening, Caouette comments in an interview: “I used the camera as a way to disassociate myself from what I was being subjected to,” adding that “I began turning the camera on my family as a way of dealing with it.” Caoette also notes that he carefully labelled the tapes he made, believing they would be valuable at some point.

I also found Caoette’s discussion of the editing process interesting. In the Times article, he explains that several “subplots” of his life story were removed, including the information that he has a 9-year old son. He also notes his initial discomfort with releasing his film to a wider audience, fearing that he might be exploiting his family’s story.


  1. Dylan Said,

    September 26, 2004 @ 10:15 pm

    I mentioned to you a couple of months ago about my thinking that David Friedman used the camera as a way to distance himself from the immediacy of what was happening… I thought about that some more later on, and I think that, when you come to that conclusion about David, it gives the viewer a different perspective on the making of his personal video diary. By making the video diary, he turned his instrument of distance on himself and forced himself to deal with what was happening. I find it an interesting little insight into the mindset of David during those difficult years.

  2. chuck Said,

    September 27, 2004 @ 10:02 am

    Dylan, I think I’m sufficiently awake now to work through your comment, and your reading of David’s use of the video diary makes a lot of sense. It’s still fairly unusual to see someone allow the emotional content of that video diary to be used in such a public way.

    It could be interesting to comapre his video diary to the MTV Real World “confessionals” in this regard, but that might just be the lack of caffiene talking.

  3. Dylan Said,

    September 27, 2004 @ 10:39 am

    That’s interesting. When Real Worlders enter the confessional, they know that what they say has an audience. If there were some way to find out if David ever thought that someone would be watching his video diary, that would also be an insight into David’s psyche.

    I don’t know if that makes sense. If I were going to make a video diary, in the back of my mind I’d be thinking about “what will they think about me when someone see’s this.”

    I’m not sure what this would say about David, if he intended it for consumption when he made it, but it goes back to your voyeurism conversation, I think. I can only imagine, then, how excited he must have been when someone wanted to make a documentary about his clown business, and perhaps there was even a small sense of excitement deep inside him when he realized the documentary was going another way.

    I’d love to read your paper once it is done.

  4. chuck Said,

    September 27, 2004 @ 12:14 pm

    Dylan, I’ve been thinking about your comments while commuting into campus, and it occured to me that we ought to distinguish betwen David Friedman, a character in a documentary, and David Friedman, the “real” person. Right now, I’m more inclined to read him as a “character” in a narrative, one that is carefully crafted by Andrew Jarecki, who chooses when certain information is revealed.

    In both cases, we have someone who is clearly performing a role, though I’d argue that these roles may not be identical. And, in terms of the video diary, David does speak to imagined audiences (“If you’re the police;” and if I recall, “If you’re not me, you shouldn’t be watching this…”). I’d argue that this rejection of audience is probably closer to an awareness that at some point, these audiences may view his taped “confessional.”

    Regarding the “Real World” comparison. I’d agree that there’s a much clearer sense that the participants know they’ll be broadcast nationwide and that’s why I think their “performance” may have a different motivation than David. A lot of this just “thinking out loud,” but I’ve enjoyed turning my attention to this paper.

    I’ll be happy to email you a copy when it’s done. 🙂

  5. Dylan Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 12:14 am

    Since this is your paper, it is, of course, decision “which” David to focus on to better suit your thesis, and I think it is interesting that you bring that up, because, it may clarify our discussion to date a bit. My thoughts about David’s video diary were, in my mind, based on David as a person. I’m interested in David’s psychology and what his video diary indicates. If, as you say, the rejection of his audience indicates an awareness of a future audience, then what does this say about David as voyeur/exhibitionist? Does this relate to his profession? I don’t have any answers, I just think they are interesting questions.

  6. Dylan Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 12:18 am

    Another question regarding David as a character in the film, and I’d need to watch it again to find out, but, when the film takes its twists and turns, is there one character that provides the new piece of information that changes the perspective? I can’t recall, but if this is David, then it would certainly provide insight into Jarecki’s method.

    Just food for thought.

  7. chuck Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 12:43 am

    Not sure what you mean by “changes teh perspective,” and I haven’t watched the film in about a week, but if I remember correctly, Jarecki includes the interview with the student who reports that he was never molested during the computer classes (the guy who calls Arnold a “nebbish” and describes the classes as “boring”) and then includes the interview with the journalist, Debbie Nathan, who wrote about many of these cases.

    I’m not discounting analyzing David as “a person,” and David the person definitely overlaps with David the character in a story. I’m just not sure we are given full access to David’s thoughts and motivations. I think it’s crucial to analyze why David made the diary and why he shares it, but Jarecki’s control over the film, how we are presented with certain information (and not other information) also seems relevant.

    And I’m writing this comment late at night, so I’m not sure it makes sense.

  8. Dylan Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 1:01 am

    You had my “changes the perspective” comment right. And you are right, I’d forgotten about the shadowed student. It may not be one person that is at the apex in the ebbs and flows of the story.

    Maybe a crucial part of analysis for your paper is that point your brought up: If the David we see is fully open and honest, and to what degree is David in control of how he appears as Jarecki is in presenting him.

    Thanks for having this discussion with me. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. And, by the way, most of my best writing comes late at night, and by best I mean most long-winded and parenthetical (mostly without a point).

  9. chuck Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 11:55 am

    I’ve been enjoying the discussion, too, and it’s helping me to think about how I want to frame aspects of my paper.

    The “ebbs and flows” you discuss seem crucial to the film, in undercutting or challenging what we had previously accepted as “true” or trustworthy information.

    In terms of Jarecki’s role, I’ve been thinking about the moments when we hear him asking question off camera, asking David or Elaine or the shadowed student to elaborate on a specific point. I’d like to go back and address some of those points, how they *might* call attention to the director’s role in the film.

    I usually work pretty well late at night, but the last week has been especially busy, making it harder for me to concentrate.

  10. Dylan Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 1:41 pm

    I think the fact that you hear questions from Jarecki of camera more than once tells you much of what you need to know about how he viewed his role. Most documentaries go to great pains to make it seem as if the interviewees managed to just speak for hours and hours without prompting. Jarecki views himself as the story teller, and didn’t try to hide that he prompted the conversations.

  11. chuck Said,

    September 28, 2004 @ 4:36 pm

    I’d agree for the most part, although I think he pretends to be inobtrusive in some other ways (he’s certainly not the “star” of his documentary like Michael Moore or Ross McElwee are).

    I’m also interested in the kinds of questions he asks, the narrative that he tries to construct (a lot of this stuff comes out in the documentary’s supplemenetal materials, which are very interesing).

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