Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is a response to a specific new doc, the latest film from Jonathan Caouette, which screened this evening at BAMcinemaFest in NYC and is now available streaming online at Sundance Now.
Documentaries shot in real time are often dependent on serendipity. And sadly the accidental “blessing” that filmmakers hope for tends to be of a misfortunate nature. That’s just how a lot of plots come about for observational works -- not that verite documentarians have always been after stories of catalysts and conclusions. But I do hear from a lot of directors who express a kind of gratitude for the “luck” of something happening, even if that something is a hardship for the subjects being filmed. As a viewer wishing to be engaged, I share in that guilty approval of adversity.
In Jonathan Caouette’s expressively complex Walk Away Renee, a sort of sequel or remake or mere supplement to his 2003 memoir film, Tarnation, the happy-yet-unhappy accident occurs when the schizoaffective title character loses her medication in the middle of a cross-country road trip. Given the mental and social deterioration and mood changes that follow for Renee, you can bet it’s an unwanted turn of events. Yet narratively the film would otherwise be an eventless home movie of mother and son bonding in a Uhaul from Houston to New York, and relatively void of drama or interest.
The circumstances of Walk Away Renee are different than most verite films, because the documentarian is Renee’s son, not some emotionally detached outsider encountering his or her latest material for study. As with Tarnation, Caouette takes an odd approach of making a first-person documentary presented in a third-person format. That is, he films himself (or his accompanying cinematographer does) and then later expositorily treats the person on screen as if he’s not the same guy making the movie. With the first film it barely kept the autobiographical compilation project from exploding with self-indulgence, whereas here it actually fits a minor underlying theme involving multiple universes and planes of existence.
What may sound like the closest thing to a sci-fi documentary since Resurrect Dead, however, is just a slightly experimental film with some bare notions about mentally ill persons’ minds existing in another place and maybe the implicit suggestion of an alternative dimension in which Renee wasn’t given regular shock treatment therapy since the age of 12. The thing is, because Caouette also rehashes Renee’s and his own back story, only using different home movie footage than what’s seen in Tarnation, this new film sometimes feels like it’s set in a parallel universe from the other. And lamentably in this universe the same tragedies have occurred.
Apparently there was actual fiction -- particularly science fiction -- material in Walk Away Renee when the film premiered at Cannes over a year ago, and the overall structure played with time and featured more avant-garde components. I wish I could have seen that work-in-progress cut in order to consider this additional level of variance. And of course the same goes for the original, longer, more abstract version of Tarnation, which debuted at the MIX NYC fest before the film was reworked and re-premiered at Sundance months later.
As it is, I already believe Tarnation exists on multiple planes as two temporally separated works, one being the (in my younger opinion) masochistically narcissistic $218.32-budgeted art project I saw and hated back when the film hit DVD and the other being the poetic, prophetically relevant cult classic that I revisited with great admiration last fall (see my response to this second look here). In this case it’s me with my new perspective that provides the true element of variety, as if I had multiple personalities, only they weren’t coinciding but resided in distanced periods of my life. I’m not sure this is the best way for viewers to identify with the violent mood swings and devastating dementias of the characters on screen, including Caouette’s maternal grandfather, or to ponder the nature of meeting Caouette and his family members at different stages in time, but it sure worked for me.
I find it very interesting that Roger Ebert, in his championing four-star review from 2004, likened Tarnation to Michael Apted’s Up series. I really don’t get the comparison back then because the Up films break up the subjects’ lives into precise points on a timeline, whereas Caouette’s movie is fairly continual in presenting a consistently self-documented life story. But Walk Away Renee does satisfy the Up concept of retrospective reunion, providing us with an answer to the question of where the subjects are now. And like Apted’s series, it devotes a whole lot of running time to reminding us of previously viewed content, as if each installment were a self-contained reboot.
Strangely, even though theoretically not too different from fiction sequels, documentary follow-ups like this tend to have more of a special edition DVD-extra quality and don’t always stand alone well as independent entities. The fact that Walk Away Renee is also made up of alternate/deleted footage, aligning it with bonus parallelling features such as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back “sequel,” 65 Revisted, and the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens encore, The Beales of Grey Gardens, means it is doubly qualified to be treated as an unnecessary add-on.
But I managed to zone in on the new stuff and ended up deeply involved and moved by the serendipitous story, concerned for Caouette and his mother and rooting for them to find her some lithium for the sake of both their mental stabilities. Even though I’ve come to appreciate Tarnation over time, Walk Away Renee has my respect immediately and I think what’s on screen is more engaging and significant. I also certainly admire the filmmaker’s maturity in making the focus more about Renee than himself this go around.
Tarnation has primarily been interesting for its historical contexts, initially its production breakthroughs and later how it figures in prescient relation to the era of Youtube. Walk Away Renee, in spite of its date-coded titles, comes off much more ageless and therefore is easily the preferrable work of the two, if I had to choose and recommend only one. I now see Tarnation as the actual supplement to this film. Walk Away Renee is admittedly a messy movie that doesn’t always seem entirely finished, but it has enough heart and triggers enough ideas to make it a memorable piece of nonfiction cinema that reflects the very complicated ongoing life of its artist.
I have to confess that this week’s pick for theatrical documentary releases was a bit of disappointment for me, having seen so much praise put towards it on the fest circuit. China Heavyweight, the new film directed by Up the Yangtze’s Yung Chang and produced by Last Train Home helmer Lixin Fan, never really drew me into its story of young boxing hopefuls. But aside from my not having a better documentary to recommend, I also think there is enough here to spotlight as worth seeing. The cinematography is extraordinary, for one thing, and the general point of this dramatic doc, which deals metaphorically with the American-ish dreams of modern Chinese involved in a western sport, is as fascinating as any story concerning the nation’s current cultural transition. Zeitgeist Films will release the doc in theaters July 6.
There are no new DVD releases I’m excited about this week, so I want to direct you towards the streaming/download site Sundance Now, which I’ve already noted is debuting Walk Away Renee this week. You can either rent that film, which I recommend, by itself or -- for less money -- subscribe to the service’s Doc Club, which has a new package of must-see nonfiction films each month curated by Thom Powers, the prolific film fest and doc series programmer (Toronto, DOC NYC, Miami, Stranger Than Fiction, etc.). This month’s crop is called Up Close & Personal and features Walk Away Renee, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine, Joe Berlinger’s Outrageous Taxi Stories and more. Check out what’s in store for the next few months and trust me that as a true doc fan you’ll want to purchase the very good deal of a one-year pass.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.