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Fire and Tarnation

PARK CITY, UTAH — For those of us whose bliss (and profession) it is to succumb again and again to the obsessive-compulsive disorder we’ve come to designate, a shade too self-congratulatorily, as “movie love,” film festivals are where we find our most intense (if ephemeral) satisfaction for our peculiar illicit passion. And once in a blue moon, as if to remind us how and why we got started on the road to Zanzibar, Taipei or Dogville, a picture shows up at a festival (or local screening room) that busts our ways of looking at cinema wide open. That this should happen this year at Sundance, and — get this — by way of a young somebody’s first feature, is something of a miracle, an unexpected validation of what can seem, at times, a really quite frivolous and neurotically self-serving vocation.

The fire this time was ignited by a documentary called Tarnation from 31-year-old cineaste in extremis Jonathan Caouette, who’s been filming his gruelingly intimate autobiography for more than 20 years (go on, do the arithmetic). And, oh yeah, he made his film for all of $218 (plus change) and edited it entirely in iMovie. It’s a fever dream of sorts (think Arthur Rimbaud, whom the filmmaker resembles in spirit) about the very painful, bizarre and most of all sentient life that produced the film. (Actually, production credits go to John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant, who came into it late but lobbied hard to get the film finished and into Sundance.) It’s the chronicle of a monumentally dysfunctional family, as if one of the Friedman kids (as in Capturing the . . .) had been preternaturally talented, arrived at a healthy perspective on everything he and his family went through — and then turned the whole thing into a musical. Briefly, there’s even a musical within the musical — a re-creation (one of the two in the film, the rest is archival) of Mr. Caouette’s own high school production based on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with songs by Marianne Faithfull, standing in for his mother and Dorothy Vallens. It also contains a drag monologue by the then-11-year-old filmmaker — based, we learned at the post-screening Q&A, on rather too early exposure to Colored Girls Who Have Committed Suicide, the “cloning episode” of The Bionic Woman TV series, and the litany of abuses suffered by his beautiful, brain-damaged superstar mom — that’ll stand your hair on end. It crosses and re-crosses the line between high art and bad acid trip, between sordid confession and life-affirming revelation, so many times that those distinctions soon cease to matter . . . But enough about Jonathan Caouette. You’ll be reading lots about him and his movie, here and in other venues, in the weeks and months to come.

 

Five days into Sundance 2004, the pickings — not so much in the dramatic competition and high-profile premieres as in the Frontier, World Cinema and Special Screening niches — have been anything but slim. In new work from past presenters, the promise of earlier panache finds mature fulfillment. Consider, for example, Penek Ratanaruang’s richly allusive Last Life in the Universe, where what draws us to his cast of depressed Bangkok slackers, and them to each other, is precisely what isn’t revealed about their background and motivation; or Benoît Mariage’s The Missing Half, which details the unexpectedly uplifting, if deeply troubled, course of a marriage after a woman, terrified by the discovery she’s pregnant with twins, elects to have one of the fetuses terminated in utero. Meanwhile, other debut features, like Ju Bian’s The Missing — in which a loosely related ensemble of orphans, both pediatric and geriatric, tentatively form or narrowly miss connections while roaming the streets and Internet cafés of Taipei — can demonstrate the extent to which certain protégés, at least, are able to make the most of powerful influences (here, that of Tsai Ming-Liang, in several of whose films Ju has had the starring role). Stir into the mix the usual sprinkling of thoughtful documentaries, innovative shorts and unclassifiable experiments (David Lebrun’s Proteus, an exposition of the beatific vision of 19th-century artist and marine biologist Ernst Haeckel; and Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal, an exploration of a 15,000-page graphic novel by the reclusive Catholic schizophrenic Henry Darger, come first to mind) and you have the makings of a high old time in Park City. So far, anyway.

Next week: Sundance reports from Ella Taylor and Scott Foundas.


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