Tuesday, June 26, 2012

At BAMcinemaFest: WALK AWAY RENÉE, Jonathan Caouette's follow-up to Tarnation

Some of us were not so pleased, back in 2004, with Jonathan Caouette's debut feature Tarnation because-- with its constant style-trumps-content and its consistent sense of me-me-me! oh-look-I'm-a-star! -- we felt it played not at all fair with his mother Renée Leblanc. We may have to eat crow now that his latest work, WALK AWAY RENÉE, is about to make its North American premiere -- at the BAMcinemaFest. (Fortunately, TrustMovies has a flock of crows who often fly right outside his Jackson Heights window -- they've even scared away the red-tailed hawk that had taken up residence -- and he'll be happy to get out his BB gun and share some lunch with fellow critics.)

Caouette's new film -- while it still offers mom (stylized, above, and simply vulnerable, below) as someone who can barely be lived with -- allows Renée to come across fully as as a human being worth our compassion, and even worth the caring she gets from her son Jonathan, his companion David, and Jonathan's son Joshua.

In this new film, we get the family history in a more solid, less fragmented manner than we did with Tarnation, and while the filmmaker still enjoys diddling with style, he's kept it more at the service of the story he wants to tell. When it's there, as it definitely is during a long, phantasmagorical light show around two-third of the way through the film, it arrives as almost a pleasurable respite from the turmoil that Caouette -- and the audience -- stews in throughout most of the rest of the movie.

Probably the most shocking visual element we see here (other than Renée's sad state) is how much and how badly Caouette appears to have aged in the years between films. This fellow, so full of energy, spirit and beauty in his younger days (at right), now looks so drained, tired and overweight (below) that it seems like some 28 years, rather than merely eight, have passed. But given what we see during the film's time line -- which takes us, zipping backward and forward, from Renée's early years, pre-Jonathan, to practically present-day -- this last decade in particular has been no picnic for anyone involved. In the first film, the movie-maker was happy to gaze at the camera 24/7; now he can barely bring himself to look directly at it.

If Tarnation often seemed like self-love taken beyond even mastur-batory level, Walk Away Renée is more than mere penance. It puts us in the seat next to a person with bi-polar disorder (and then some). If you've ever spent time around this sort, as I have, that weird double response of helping another person coupled to your own self-protection will quickly kick in. (Personal note: I live with my companion of 20-odd years and his 98-year-old mother, who has lived with us for the past ten years. While I would not call this living arrangement easy, by comparison with what Caouette and his companion contend -- and now, it seems Caouette's own son lives with them, too -- I consider our immediate family to be lucky.)

Back and forth in time we go, as son tries to take mom by car from Texas to New York, in the process losing her meds (one wonders if she herself did not toss them out) and try desperately to cadge a refill, while filling viewers in on family history over four generations. By the 50-minute mark, we've come full circle. And then we move ahead toward... what?

I'd have liked to have learned more about the filmmaker's companion David, whom I'm sure viewers will imagine is some kind of saint. (People have referred to me in that way, too, because I've taken in the mother of my companion. They don't realize, of course, that it is easier to distance yourself when it is not your mother because you have none of that 30-, 40-, or -- for us -- 60-year baggage that must come along with any mother-child relationship.)

I hope Caouette will continue his story -- of Renée, of his life with David, of the progress of his son Joshua (above, left). This tale would seem to beg for a third chapter, if only to see mom put to rest, and the remaining lives put to other, less stressful, perhaps more normal -- if these people have a clue as to what that word might mean -- tests. Walk Away Renée, from Sundance Selects, screens tomorrow evening, Wednesday, June 27, at BAM, as part of the BAMcinemaFest. You can see the entire -- and pretty damn special -- BCF program here, and get directions to BAM here. As for the film itself, in addition to any theatrical showings, it can now be seen (starting Wednesday, June 27: I'm posting a tad early) on the new SundanceNow doc club, where it can be rented for a one-time charge of $6.99 -- or screened FREE for anyone who subscribes to the Doc Club.


Zing Blog said...

I loved Tarnation. There was plenty of substance to go with the style. I'm a big fan of Audio/Visual poetry.

James van Maanen said...

A lot of folk agree with you, Zing Blog. I just wasn't one of 'em.
But I'm glad I was able to finally jump on the Caouette bandwagon with his Walk Away film.