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Screen Play

 

REVIEWS
(documentary films)
--Tarnation
--Couple in a Cage
--Seeing With Ones Own Eyes
--Grizzly Man

Can You Define Tarnation?
I cannot define Tarnation. I cannot break it down. I cannot define Tarnation. (So, instead I will draw comparisons). No, I will not define Tarnation.

Tarnation: It seems like a sad family portrait. It seems like a late 80s music video. It seems like a commentary on early health care. It seems like a clip of pop art. It seems like a psychedelic trip. It seems like unrealized dream of fame. It seems like a journey for self-actualization. It seems like a mental ward meets Andy Warhol meets Broadway musical. It seems to suffocate you with situation, but disconnect you from the story.

No, I cannot define Tarnation.

Tarnation is a unique and unparalleled document of dysfunctional family dynamics placed on the backdrop of (perhaps, equally defective) American popular culture.  The film uses a bombardment of imagery, and a use—or lack of use—of sound and distortion to create a collage of Jonathan Caouette’s heartbreaking and bizarre life. However unparalleled the biopic seems as a whole, certain aspects of Caouette’s film can be used to draw lines of comparison between the films of Stan Brakhage and Warner Herzog. Though Tarnation creates massive explosions away from these lines of comparison, it is evident that these filmmakers have significant techniques in common, while maintaining drastically different voices.

The disjunctive images, rapid cross cutting and the use of a personal hand held camera is central to the multifaceted tone of Caouette’s biopic. Though, Tarnation pieces together past home videos, snapshots and “new” footage, which is quite different than the format of Brakhage’s films; the quick paced shots and constant fluctuations in mood of Caouette’s piece is reminiscent of Stan Brakhage's Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes. The frameworks in both films are distorting. They both use a montage of powerful images—without voice over—to affect viewers’ interpretation of the visuals, waving the presumed need for exposition. Visual cues are so apparent that the “need” for verbal explanation would be destructive to artistic integrity. In both cases, the use of exposition would pop the intense imaginative bubble, which envelops audiences.

In Caouette’s Tarnation however, this technique of constant change was juxtaposed with the pounding use of repetition. Repetition was used widely in the film across its span of time (the film’s 88 minutes). But also, the repetition of images was used within a single frame at one moment. Added atop this multiplicity of images, there was also the layering of sounds and distortion. The repetition of images and layering of sounds worked uniquely to place viewers into Caouette’s pandemonic head. The use of split screen images adds both a sense of overwhelming emphasis and a sense of overwhelming fragmentation (this contradiction is, perhaps, drawn from Caouette’s experience with his mom’s bipolar disorder and his own depersonalization disorder). Mixed with layers of manipulated sounds and familiar pop tunes, these images according to Caouette, offer viewers, “the experience of seeing what was inside my head” (Arthur, 49). Strangely, what was “inside his head” are images of his deranged mother surfacing in curiously similar forms to pop art (this brings up further questions on the influence of the culture industry, which there is no room to get into). However, in both the cases of Brakhage and Caouette—whether we are literally or metaphorically ‘seeing inside the human head’—the act of seeing, not telling is what draws audiences in and takes us on an overpowering ride through the frailty of human existence.

On the other hand, Warner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, maintains themes similar to the aforementioned, but with a different approach. Like Caouette, Herzog pieces together past “personal-confessional” footage to create a commentary on one man’s life and consequently, life itself. Yet, different from both Brakhage and Caouette, Herzog uses a much more seamless, “reality” principle, which makes his film seem more apt to be categorized as documentary. Nonetheless, Herzog’s similar lack of voiceover leaves the microphone in the hand of the subject and perhaps therefore, he is like Caouette, creating an authenticity in “seeing”—looking onto the subject without outside interpretation—that pieces together unrefined and absurd character, in order to comment on the “outcast” and society at large.

In all three films we are left with layers of telling images that are squeezed into particular frames of reference. Like any ideological point of view, these frames (and in turn, the documentaries as a whole) at the same time, reveal and conceal, human life in its most delicate moments. Michael Bronski, in his review of Tarnation states: “watching Tarnation is a sobering experience, for it reminds us constantly of how fragile life is,” (Bronski, 39). The “sobering” aspects of Tarnation, of course rely on its damaged subjects and its heart-wrenching themes. Yet, one can also imagine that the probing, fluctuant and unpredictable nature of the films production add to its intensity. Both Brakhage and Caouette utilize disjunctive, fast-paced cutting and distorted images, along with heartfelt subjects to create a sobering visual discourse.

While, Herzog and Caouette both utilize the construction of “outcasted” characters, to create a document, which is critical of structures of society and culture; and more so, the struggle of individuals inherent in these systems. However, the thread of life’s fragility is woven through the sobering images of Brakhage, into the sadly real images of Herzog and the overwhelming images of Caouette. All three directors focus on complexities of human worth (the struggle to remain immortal) and the sad fact of mental and physical deterioration.

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COUPLE IN A CAGE

The sun rises and sets; the Earth rotates; concrete pours into crates; the birds sing welcoming spring; and here I sit trapped in a golden cage.

Is there anything unnatural about a human in a cage? I mean if they are “real primitives” we cannot just set them loose on Main Street. And if they are used for educational purposes it is as righteous as a mouse injected with cancer cells.

The absurdity of societies reactions to the “Couple in the Cage” experiment is…absurd. Coco Fusco explains that the original intent of the project was satirical. It was supposed to be a performative commentary on Western ideas of the Other. Instead—taking the project literally—audiences completely reinforced these ideas and proved that stereotypes of the primitive and expectations of how we present the “exotic” are still very much alive. Though the project set-off to be a piece of sarcastic social commentary through performance art, it became much more than that. The larger implications lay not in the cage, but in the audiences’ interpretation of this act.

Foremost, one must consider the location of display. By performing in locations such as universities and museums, audiences entered the space with expectation. These institutions stand for something beyond what they display. The artefacts inside these institutions are defined and interpreted in ways according to how that space operates—or is expected to operate. Perhaps this is why audiences missed the obvious evidence of satire, as ‘the museum said so, therefore it must be true’. Even though these “primitive” people looked like a mix between costumed TV wrestlers and gladiators in Hawaiian skirts, their appearance was still based on and playing with our notions of “Otherness” and when placed in settings of institutionalized authority we tend to loose—if we had one in the first place—a critical eye. Our easy acceptance of things that may seem morally corrupt can be affected when we are placed in an environment which is defined by its “Truth,” we see this in the school system, the court, and even in the documentary film.

In The Minds of Crowds, Gustave Le Bon tells readers that the “crowd” setting alters how individuals would act—and judge their actions—than if they were in a situation of isolation. The “collective mind” of crowds is irrational and often based on ideas that are severely disjointed and unreasonable. Le Bon tells us the single-mindedness of crowds is due to the unconscious state of a crowd and their lack of reasoning. We can see this illogical “collective mind” in that of the spectator in the museum. Not only are the institutional environments supposed to be based on “Truth,” but also the fact that no other citizen seem to be standing up against these understood ideologies induces the passive mind of the crowd. Before a member in a group decides to make any sort of uproar or social change, they see what those around them are doing and are often held back by it. Unfortunately, this is one vicious cycle.

Furthermore, though the display of human beings in a cage may look cruel, Americans have been well groomed for such manifestations of Otherness. Even though the performance seemed morally incorrect, the formal environment for display and the naturalization of American patriarchal gaze made this act seem justified. It left spectators with varied, opposing interpretations, but few outright critical. “Since it contradicts the dominant ideology’s presentation of our system as a democracy—the audience reactions indicate that colonialist roles have been internalized quite effectively…ethnographic displays are still alive in high culture and the mass media” (Fusco 153). Here Fusco explains that though the act of caging human beings goes against democratic values thought to be fundamental in American society, the colonist role of Western culture is so internalized that this display does not seem unnatural/immoral to most spectators. The justification here is that we can re-code the “gaze” into an educational experience for “us,” which makes it okay. By placing the caged humans in a museum or a university the framing of the performance became re-coded as academic and purposeful—even if it is just for our purpose, at the expense of theirs.

Also, by placing these “primitives” in their seemingly “natural” habitats—in our quite unnatural institutional environments—we, in a sense, reinforce the ideology that they do not belong in our habitat. This is based on the assumption that “they” would not be able to function in our advanced society. Instead we display them as people of “ritual” far from our own civilization. In the film one spectator comments that the Amerindian man seems to be fascinated with the television set placed in his cage, though the American man notes that—of course—the native man does not know why he is fascinated with this modern object of popular culture. This made me laugh. I wonder do we even know why “us” Western folk are fascinated by the television? The man speaks as if we are aware… when I am certain the West’s fascination with the TV set is as much a cultural confusion as our fascination with the Other. 

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How I Saw It With My Own Eyes

It felt completely and utterly absurd to watch something so brutal. It felt so real, too real. It was full of life, but it was death. It was exciting, horrifying and super intrusive. It was skin crawling, bone rattling, and heart racing. It was sad. It was tormenting. But then—I smiled—I smiled so awe-fully and sadistically. I looked around, luckily nobody saw me because they were as awe-stricken and sick as I was. It was a series of vicious autopsies. Human flesh bared raw. Life so evidential, but it was gone.

The footage of Stan Brakhages’ The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes opens up gates of flesh and blood like no one wants to see, but, arguably, we ought to.

The mountainous edges of rib cages formed into maps of the human flesh. Our whole history, autonomy and reality turned into meat under a knife. It screams in your ear, but doesn’t make a sound. In his essay On Noise, Seneca said, “There is no such thing as peaceful stillness” (Seneca, 6). And it is this still-silence of Brakhage’s footage that is so powerful. It forces viewers to look into their own heads for speculation. The lack of commentary leaves audiences without guidance and as Bart Testa notes, “it seems to offer nowhere to hide from its raw literalness” (Testa, 270). The absolute stillness of audio, against the constant movement of vulgar graphics is waning. The use of no voiceover, no music and no narrative, means no breath of fresh air. It slowly feels like the quietness gets louder with each camera twitch. In the end, the silence is roaring.
           
The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is easily placed under the category of “documentary” because of its production and Truth in its images (opposed to a fictionalized film). However, it has been argued that Brakhage’s film lacks the “discourse of sobriety,” which is essential to most other documentaries. “Documentaries are committed to exposition, explanation, and argument,” whereas, Avant-garde films like Brakhage’s, “completely abandons verbal argument,” (Testa, 273). However, it is this lack of context, exposition and verbal framing that makes this particular document of Truth so sobering. By exposing literal images without allowing audiences to escape into verbal explanation, there is a powerful moral argument being made. It forces viewers to make sense of things themselves. It provides us with a much needed, “kick to the gut” that initiates our own self-reflective search for meaning in the crude, revealing visuals. This act of showing is more powerful than words could tell.

The composition techniques of the film—its quick paced shots, its use of juxtaposition, its process of unveiling too much or not enough, the use of extreme close-ups and white-out—work for and against each other to make an argument without words and without sounds.

The quick shots of Brakhage’s hand held camera plague viewers with perpetual anxiety; they never let us get comfortable with an image. “Brakhage times and paces the shots, and frames sequences, so none remains long enough or repeats often enough to desensitize the viewer,” (Testa, 277). In this sense the production techniques are a form of “discourse of sobriety” themselves—they are a constant slap in the face. The literal images and visual composition work to frame a point of view and show an argument, without telling audiences how to feel, but by making us feel. The act of direct, relentless “seeing” itself is the film’s moral end.

Brakhage’s use of extreme close-ups and odd framing obscures our interpretation of the subjects and creates a commentary in the image alone (such as, puddles of blood glistening like ponds and organs in the form of intricate oil paintings). These shots are not just striking in themselves, overtime they add to the silent commentary the film generates. Or perhaps, the fact that the dead flesh is beautiful in its own right is the commentary one may take.

Also, these obscured close-ups—such as the ones displayed in the montage scene near the end of the film—build pressure and anticipation. These extreme shots curiously conjured up emotions in me that I feel during intense scenes of horror films, like The Shinning. Since the screen-wide close-ups do not take a step back, they do not show us the bigger picture. Like in a horror film, we cannot see what is behind the next corner (or under the milky skin of the next blood-drained limb). This exclusion keeps us on our toes. As these concentrated images flashed past the screen, I felt the same nervous cringe in my stomach that I felt flashing past blood-spattered doorways and weaving through the narrow hallways of The Shinning. I was scared, claustrophobic, and on the edge of my seat, ready to cover my eyes when the next awful image was revealed. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt like my eyes saw too much and strangely it wasn’t enough. When it was all over, I wanted to see more. 

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Utopian Things:
Bears Are Not Cuddly. Happy Meals Are Dead Cows. Santa Is Your Mommy and Daddy.

Grizzly Man is a sad narrative that exposes a man killed by his best friend—the Alaskan grizzly bear—on a search for himself.

A subject matter typical of Warner Herzog’s documentaries, the subject of this film, Timothy Treadwell, is a social misfit. He is an outcast looking beyond societal boundaries—in the most outstanding landscape—for his own self-worth. Though Treadwell is killed before he “found himself”; it was, perhaps, the search that had been curative and the journey that provided him with his larger purpose.

This film is composed of over one hundred hours of footage that Treadwell had filmed in his last five summers—after thirteen-years—of expeditions in the Alaskan Peninsula, living amongst and somewhat like a grizzly bear. Herzog edited down Timothy Treadwell’s footage and also, compiled outside interviews and recordings himself. The result was an entertaining and effective framing of the story of this confused man, who called upon himself as “the kind warrior” of the fearsome grizzly.

As I watched this disturbing document unfold, I felt myself submerged in the emotional lunacy of Treadwell. At times the film worked as a sort of confessional journal for Treadwell, as he spent so many days and nights alone (or so he says he is “alone”) in the most remote settings. Audiences are told—from both outside interviews and Treadwell’s footage itself—that he had struggled in his youth, with drugs, an acting career and an Australian persona he had fabricated and claimed. As I listened to Treadwell speak to the camera I could see a reflection of this unresolved emotional conflict within himself. It was as if he was looking outside himself—to drugs, to the bears and to the camera—for confirmation of his worth.

In his work on video confessionals, Michael Renov argues that, “The subjects seek not forgiveness but expressive release in the form of dialogues—between imaged subject and a present but unimaged interlocutor—from which only monologues survive,” (Renov, 200). This is true in many senses for Treadwell in Grizzly Man. Foremost, it is clear that Treadwell uses the camera as a form of emotional release. He speaks to the camera in the most intimate moments, like when he asks why he has problems with women. “I am a good guy, a lot of fun,” he says. Treadwell knows he is not going to get a response, but it is not direct answers that he is looking for. Perhaps it is the disappointment of the answers (“No man, you’re mad”) that he is escaping. Either way, the silent response of the camera lens offers Treadwell a form of therapeutic dialogue, which he likely would have otherwise engaged in with a bumblebee.

This expressive release is not only evident in intimate camera confessionals, but also in the literal documentation. The mere fact that the film was running, provided Treadwell with a sense of immortality and tangibility that he was looking for in his journey; a journey that took him through both the harsh terrain of Hollywood and Alaska. His fascination with fame—to live on and leave a legacy—is obviously one that is pertinent in our culture.  However, it was this need to find immortal worth that I believe ultimately lead Treadwell to his (perhaps, wished-for) death. In an interview, a friend of his articulated that Treadwell felt unworthy in getting his “message” across and he believed that maybe in death it would be better received. And I suppose in a way, it was. Though, the “Grizzly People” movement has yet to spread its claws across the country.

Nonetheless, the camera in many ways works as a confessional and therapeutic device for both the viewers and subject. “Art has been judged capable of yielding, “cathartic” effects for artist and audience alike through the public disclosure of concealed impulses,” (Renov, 195). We like to hear bizarre stories and secrets; they let us pass judgement on others, allow us to draw conclusions about our own personal life and pose as a form of voyeuristic entertainment (hello, talk shows/ reality TV). Unlike the confessions one may take to a priest or a therapist, the personal camera is less of a structure of control. The camera is inhuman (like grizzly bears), therefore less intimidating (not like grizzly bears) and less direct. But still in a way, it is a medium for psychoanalytical device. Like the priest is a medium to convey the repentance of sins from subjects to God, the camera is a medium in which subjects can convey messages to audiences.

In the case of Grizzly Man, Herzog directly—and audiences indirectly—performs an “analytic role” as he frames Treadwell’s footage, through editing, commentary and interpretation. As, Michael Renov illustrates, “in the stages of secondary revision we call editing, the videomaker/confessant has the potential, in working through the material to produce, if only implicitly something like an analysis,” (Renov, pg 201). Through the selection of material, emphasis or de-emphasis, Herzog creates an honest film that speaks of both Treadwell’s and his own “creative madness”.

In turn, this glance into the deranged life and mind of Timothy Treadwell, paints a picture of universal truth. In Grizzly Man we can watch Herzog create a portrait of a marginalized man, rejected by human society looking to the raw-simplicity of animal life for liberation. However, we can also watch Herzog struggle to make sense of this character, as he has with many “outsiders” in documentary work before. “Picasso once remarked that the portraiture is essentially a double exercise, a rendering that inscribes both sitter and artist,” (Arthur, 43). As Herzog has said, “I seek certain utopian things” (Arthur, 47). Perhaps it is this search that bonds Herzog to men like Treadwell. Either way, this dynamic between “sitter and artist”—Treadwell’s character and Herzog’s—helps to sincerely materialize this documentary. Maintaining a sense of honesty as Herzog uncovers Treadwell’s journey through a very alive environment, creating a profound statement on human boundaries and “otherness” in society.

As we watch Treadwell cry to the red fox, encourage the grizzly bear to love and morn over the death of a (very much living) bumblebee, we find a sense of pathetic honesty and unique passion for life that makes this documentary so powerful. Cast aside from human society, Treadwell finds himself overwhelmed by emotion: the most human of qualities. And in the end it is his own undying passion and unyielding search for merit in himself that lead Timothy Treadwell to his anti-climatic death. Through the medium of video confessional and the search for “certain utopian things”, Warner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, frames the life and the death of this tormented misfit with raw, sad and absurd honesty.

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