Monday, February 22, 2010

Layer upon layer.... (Books - Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, & Film - Tarnation)

Jonathan Caouette's film Tarnation, a recommendation of friend Sheila, is a disturbing and ultimately redemptive blend of autobiography, docu-drama, and performance art. Passionate, personal, and breathlessly edited, the film is a long scream of pain for his mother, who was mistakenly given multiple shock treatments which have left her an unstable mess but who is nonetheless deeply loved by her son. Caouette was raised first in foster care and then by his delusional grandparents. From a very early age, Caouette has documented his life using video. He was also aware that he was gay and taped himself performing monologues as female characters starting around age 11. These disturbingly observant, maturely ironic pieces seem to serve as psychological stand-ins both for Caouette's pain at the abuse he experienced and that of his mother. I watched this artfully edited collage of pain both wanting to hide from the bald confessional nature of it and fascinated by the way Caouette used film and characters that are at once him and his family, but also artistic creations, as a sort of therapeutic diary to grow into the evidently responsible, self-aware, and loving adult he has become.

This was an interesting counterpoint to Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, which I read in large part yesterday. Think what you will of the man, but his ideas of the influence of unconscious drives on our behavior, the literary structures he provided to understand the mind (id, ego, superego), and his techniques for unlocking those buried parts of us that are troublingly influential via associative talk and understanding how to read the symbols they use to hide behind have indelibly influenced the way we think and talk about thought, mind, personality, and culture. It was an apt to companion piece to Caouette's film/diary in which the forces of drive in the context of a repressive culture, have their devastating influence on personality, and are ultimately released through multi-layered symbols - the actually personalities of Jonathan and his mother on the deepest level, the level of the characters he played in his life to survive them, and the most visible layer of the work of art he fashioned to depict them.

The third work I experienced this weekend (although I barely had 20 minutes to touch it) was Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. Nearly a contemporary of Freud, Mann's work famously evokes the political and cultural forces impinging on the European continent through the characters inhabiting a sanitorium high on a Swiss Alp. All three of these pieces struck me for their use of symbol - letting one thing stand for another, a feature not only of art and psychology but of spoken language, which represents concepts symbolically and written language represents the sounds of spoken language symbolically. These are all fashioned the sum of electrical bursts and the forces that inhibit them in our brain - acts that are decidedly not symbolic but literal and whose computational sum result in our cognitive and motor activities, the states from which they emerge, and whose experience we describe as behaviors and the forces that motivate them.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - I am so glad you saw Tarnation and I loved to hear your thoughts here. It is a wrenching film. Weren't those "testimonials" he did as a kid, monologues basically, just incredible and chilling? Art as Savior. His life could have so gone another way. But it didn't. It was art - and like Mitchell said - a certain brand of narcissism that saved him. Amazing film. That grandmother scared the crap out of me. SHE was the one who was nuts, not the poor daughter.

Apparently he has a new film out - he has a son now, who apparently is a teenager - and his film is all about that. Mitchell has seen it, said it is lovely.

Ted said...

S - Great recommendation! The testimonials were terrifying. And, yes, the grandmother was sick but I thought the grandfather was too. Very shaky grip on reality. It is remarkable how he saved himself. I wonder, given how useful his self focus is, if he will ever make non-autobiographic film? I'd love to see the second one.