At the heart of Tarnation‘s success, in 2003, was the fearlessness with which Jonathan Caouette exposed his chaotic upbringing with what seemed like an endless archive of childhood videos. In them he already wore the ravages of time on his adult-boy face, in the way he translated trauma into performance. In Walk Away Renee, Caouette is still trying to make sense of his history of losses through the figure of his mentally ill mother, Renee, with the help of home videos, a heavy reliance on songs, and narrative-friendly title cards. If in Tarnation we could still root for reparation and see vestiges of a beautiful, well-meaning woman in Renee’s eyes (he never calls her “mom”), the most recent film offers us a portrait of what’s become of so much emotional battering as he himself becomes his mother’s mother. She’s now wrinkled, heavier, toothless, worn out, constantly hostile, and with rare moments of complete lucidity. He’s paunchier, scruffier, distressed, devoted—like an exhausted artist at the end of a very long yet barely productive hibernation.
Walk Away Renee wants to be a kind of road film, as Caouette drives his mother in a U-Haul from a home in Texas to New York City, where he lives with his boyfriend and son, and where she’s supposed to continue her treatments. Not much actually happens on the trip itself: Renee’s medication is lost, which sets Caouette scrambling for ways to get her prescription filled; she gets increasingly belligerent; he remains delicately maternal toward her. It’s Caouette’s insistence in going back to his nightmarish old footage, or the old footage that he purposefully renders nightmarish, that seems more interesting. He harkens back to the horrors of a childhood of systematic abandonment (despite his “I never once doubted they loved me” rhetoric) over and over again, retelling his story, sometimes repeating himself, luxuriating in the symptom, as Freud might say. Most symptomatic of all is Caouette’s reliance on title cards that aim to give a sense of linearity for the unfolded events, when in fact, the events are most revealing when we barely know what’s going on or where they’re taking place: flickering lights, creepy grandparent’s eyes, hysterical screaming, Ferris wheels spinning.
The great thing about Caouette’s work, and Walk Away Renee feels like a timely re-encounter, is his ability to own his American sensibility, whose pedigree is certainly in 1980s video art and film essays, but without vanity. There’s no focus on his body, or his words, his intellectual pretenses, or his amazing avant-garde ambitions. There’s a cinematic attempt at restitution, at a piecing together that’s bound to always fail, yet never fails to produce some other unaccounted-for meaning, or feeling. Strangely, the film doesn’t tug at the heart, and it’s thankfully never sentimental. Cauoette’s sequel feels like a found journal full of doodles, mosaics, and collages. A journal that isn’t our little sister’s, or our little brother’s, it’s one that we already read once, which enables us to look at it without hoping for secrets or scandals or the terrors that Tarnation already warned us about. We look at it, instead, with the respect of a passerby compelled to acknowledge the commendable efforts of a stranger.