The Times are Changing: The Use of Experimentation and Excess to Speak on Social Identity in “Tarnation” and “Man with a Movie Camera”

The 1920s were an exciting time in social change and art, particularly film. Film was at the forefront of progressive thought around the world, and Russia was one of the time’s great leaders. Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film “Man with a Movie Camera” uses experimental film techniques to not only document the excitement of life in post-revolutionary Russia of industry, labor and modernism, but to shape it toward a more ideal future by capturing everyday events from a new perspective and reassembling that footage to show a new vision. As Nichols points out, “Like the Soviet art movement known as constructivism, Soviet cinema explored how film could serve the revolutionary aspirations of the moment…how could it construct a distinct culture freed from bourgeois tradition”.

Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 “Tarnation” uses home video archives to not only comment on his personal story, but to carve out a niche in American identity by providing a personal portrait of himself as a both a gay man and a child who takes care of a sick mother, raised by potentially sick grandparents in a nation that is ironically offended by new ways of seeing. Both filmmakers seek to capture an unabashed truth in film and through experimental techniques and excess move the audience toward a revision of future social identity.

The role of excess is controversial in “Man with a Movie Camera”, as he strictly aimed through kino-eye to dismiss the role of the narrative in film making The use of inter-titles and editing alone can be said to give the film a certain level of narrative. “Man with a Movie Camera” explores the things about life that connect us, splicing together scenes in juxtaposition of one another, in certain sequence: a new dawn, wake up, the city streets, birth, death, marriage, divorce, wonder, apathy, but the resonating theme is to keep going. While Vertov intended no narrative and in effect produced a movie of complete excess, that excess combined with clever editing, compels a new narrative to form, that the collective is the new vision for social identity.

The role of excess in “Tarnation” is the impetus of the film. Whether an extended shot of Renee invoking Shirley Temple about her pumpkin or a shot from the car window to establish a passage of time, footage of Rosemary going on about her teeth or Adolph waxing poetic about the weather, “Tarnation” relies on excess to speak beyond narrative. The sheer volume and audacity of the excess material in “Tarnation” speaks to the voice, the chaotic mood that the excess creates. Perhaps, if not for intertitles, no narrative at all would exist.. In this way, “Tarnation” makes a statement on the social climate and one man’s experience as a self proclaimed outsider looking in. By showing the chaos in the status quo of Middle America and the process that a person goes through in order to survive, Caouette gives a voice to the queer everywhere who struggle to belong in a society that seems like a circus fun house.

Both films use excess to evoke memory as well. In “Man with a Movie Camera” splices of images that we see early in the film come to full life later. An awkward child in curls who we saw briefly in juxtaposition with elderly women later becomes the focus at a birthday party watching a magician. It is the memory that allows the audience to follow Vertov toward the new vision. The audience, also, admires youth and magic shows. Vertov reminds the audience through memory that looking with young, fresh eyes alone can change one’s reality.

Caouette on the other hand uses memory to gut the emotive. He begins the film with Renee in her worse state. He then takes us through the story only to bring the audience back to the devastating condition toward the end. In doing this, he allows the audience to revisit that lowly state after processing the story which is effective in persuading the audience to re-examine the status-quo of Middle America.

The arrangement of soundtrack also plays a significant role in both “Tarnation” and “Man with a Movie Camera”. “Man with a Movie Camera” employs the use of a repeating symphony full of allegro and gives an uplifting mood to the overall film, a choice said to be directly requested by Vertov himself. I find more interesting the use of found sound in juxtaposition with shots of machinery and workers. The level of high modernism of the shots in juxtaposition with the sounds give “Man with a Movie Camera” a sense of urgency and timelessness combined.

“Tarnation” uses a sometimes haunting, sometimes flamboyant soundtrack to exude the raw emotion that he too uses in juxtaposition with stark imagery. In fact, his soundtrack is what made a movie shot for under $300 rise to a distribution price tag of hundreds of thousands more. He chooses haunting melodic numbers to set the mood surrounding his mother and inner torture. He chooses musical numbers from “Hair” coupled with his home video performance of such to emulate the ideals of a subculture as a gay man.

Both Vertov and Caouette use an eccentric, deconstructionist style of materials to create a particular mood. Vertov’s desire to influence social identity is seen by his employment of various obscured vantage points, visually directing the audience to a new way of knowing the world. At the hands of his wife and film editor, chess pieces straighten themselves up, theatre chairs extend their lap in dance anticipating patrons, logs stack up like children playing with toys, a man is seen both in a beer glass and on top of a movie giant camera. An audience watches as a camera dances on its tripod legs across the screen. The use of unique film techniques such as stop-motion frames of man and animal, juxtapositions and negative sandwiching, slow motion, reverse, and grid framing, while not to Vertov’s credit alone, is successful in jolting the audience to a ‘new vision’ a ‘new way of seeing the everyday life of Russia. Indeed the movie goer of the 1920s had never viewed a train from underneath, a crowd from an airlift, or the moment of birth caught on film. Through these new visions, the audience is urged to collaboratively look toward the future, to embrace the social identity of the time.

“Tarnation” jolts the audience to a new way of seeing by employing similar techniques. Caouette, also uses grid framing, bizarre juxtapositions, slow and stop framing, as well as pulsating color and other modern special computerized effects. By using this vivid, jarring style, Caouette gives a visual representation of the inner emotions of dealing with the complexities of growing up gay and in an eccentric family in middle-class America. By the elaborate use of skewed home movies that span thirty years, Caouette urges the audience to re-examine the social climate of a nation, particularly carving out a niche for and speaking on behalf of a subculture. By exploring himself and his family, the film speaks about the social identity of gay men in America and that of the mainstream from which gay persons are excluded.

Bell Hooks once said, “Not only will I stare, I want my look to change reality”. Dziga Vertov excitedly stares back to emulate the political identify that valued the collection of workers over that of the bourgeois, progression over tradition, working with the movement of the time in Russia. Caouette angrily stares back to emulate the political identity of the marginalized over that of the status-quo in America: ‘Tar-Nation’. While Vertov’s artistic proof lies more in the realm of the ethical, Caouette appeals to the pathos of emotion. Both filmmakers aggressively participate in their films using excess and experimentation to deliver highly compelling statements that propel a new social identity of their time.


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