Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is right up among my personal favourite indie films, so it’s exciting to hear news of his sequel, Walk Away Renee, in a review by Jana J. Monji on the Chicago Sun-Times website. For anyone who doesn’t know it, Tarnation is an extraordinary expressive first-person autobiographical documentary, shot at virtually no initial cost and involving various kaleidoscopic displays of home-movie and reconstructed footage relating to his troubled life and that of his family, particularly his mother Renee. It reaches quite ecstatic heights at times, in the orchestration of images to a selection of the filmmaker’s favourite music. And you have to love a film that includes footage of his precocious high-school production of a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet! I’ve written about Tarnation at some length in my forthcoming book Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity on Contemporary American Indie Film, as an example of what’s become known as the ‘digital desktop’ aesthetic resulting from certain, mostly low-budget uses of DV, particularly at the level of expressive post-production effects. Be interesting to see how the sequel works – structured around a trip across the US taken by Caouette and Renee as he moves her from her home in Houston to join him in New York – as Tarnation certainly set the bar high for this kind of production and will be a tough act to follow. A brief clip is available below.
The film itself is currently available by video-on-demand from the SundanceNOW platform. Which brings me on to an issue that came up during the Q&A at the London Film and Media conference panel I was a part of at the weekend, particularly in relation to a paper by Yannis Tzioumakis about history of overseas distribution of indie films. This kind of source (not specifically discussed in this paper, which traced some broader patterns over recent decades) has become a key contemporary outlet for some lower-budget indies, but it’s notable how lacking this is at the moment in fully international dimension, despite the increased overseas presence of indies as charted by Tzioumakis. Looking at the SundanceNOW site, it claims that ‘Independent film knows no borders, and SundanceNOW is proud to offer films from countries all over the world, from Korea to Romania and nearly everywhere in between.’ Hmm. From here in the UK what I get in relation to Walk Away Renee and every other title I’ve just tried is a notice saying: ‘This movie is not available in your geographic location.’ OK, the UK isn’t actually in between Korea and Romania I suppose, but I don’t think they were being that literal.
Clearly there are lots of rights issues still involved in all this and a coherent strategy is still missing, unless there’s a deliberate policy to hold back some overseas rights in the hope that they can be sold theatrically. But that undermines any hope of getting a bigger return from initial sources of publicity that can often have international reach, particularly in this era of social media, such as this case of a prominent review for the Caouette film. The same issue applies to one of the other high profile sources of regular use of VOD, the IFC. The IFC has a strategy with lower budget films of giving them a splashy showcase in New York’s IFC Center, simultaneously with VOD release, an approach that’s been used recently with a number of new films by the unbelievably prolific Joe Swanberg. These, too, are unavailable to me in the UK. Which is rather frustrating, given that they’re very unlikely to be released theatrically over here either. Presumably this will change. And maybe the same will happen in the realm of the indie TV channels run by Sundance and the IFC, which also seem to be unavailable outside the US.