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Up Close and Personal 

It is not the most harmonic convergence, this intersection of digital technology and the impassioned campaign for 15 minutes of fame. But there is no doubt that in this post-millennium, postmodern era, the ability to capture an image is equaled only by the desire to present one's image to the world. To what purpose? Fame? Glory? Truth? Knowledge?

The past few years have seen an explosion of documentaries, or films close enough to qualify for this fluidly defined film genre. The parameters of the genre are broadening as we speak, and the genre's dynamic tension between the objective and subjective voice has become even more taut.

This often isn't very pretty to watch, which is probably the point; the truth, whether objectively or subjectively presented, is often ugly. Put more simply, documentaries are getting downright freaky. And while I'm stumped trying to figure out if this is a good thing, it's certainly fun to observe what is clearly a work in progress.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Tarnation are perfect examples of the viewer getting too much information, and like their spiritual antecedents I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and Capturing the Friedmans, they show subjects willing to live very intimate moments in full view of the camera. For the members of Metallica, just as the members of Wilco in Heart, the idea of being filmed during the making of a crucial album in the studio might have initially seemed like a cute enough idea. But it became a royal pain in the ass when creative differences and other dramas turned the situation into a well-captured train wreck. The process was so painful, in fact, that the band members openly discussed the idea of pulling the plug with filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Brude Sinofsky (of Brother's Keeper fame). They decided to gut it out, meeting with their high-priced shrink, enduring ego and artistic battles between singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, and fighting to channel the anger that fueled their earlier, sometimes brilliant work while staring down middle age and family responsibilities.

If Some Kind of Monster does nothing else, it helps dampen the wicked humor, some 20 years later, of the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, which tweaked the self-important nose of heavy metal in particular and rock 'n' roll in general. Not once did I doubt the pain Hetfield was feeling as he fought a two-front battle: Ulrich's vision and Hetfield's drinking problems. Every time you listened to Hetfield talk, in his low, measured baritone, you could hear a tortured soul who really was trying to keep his shit together without losing it. None of this film is played for laughs, and if you don't come away from it with a new-found respect for heavy metal musicians as artists, you're tone deaf.

Watching Tarnation is a far more problematic exercise, for director Jonathan Caouette presents himself front and center in the film in what initially feels like the crystallization of Caouette's complicated relationship with his mentally disturbed mother -- captured over the years first in snapshots and soon after on Caouette's camera (from the age of 11 on). But if you think this is another Capturing the Friedmans, or even Grey Gardens (a freak show unto itself), look at Caouette's support group and guess again. Co-executive producer Gus Van Sant is a director who, in the middle of a career that included such indie successes as Drugstore Cowboy and mainstream fare as Good Will Hunting, has returned to his roots with the more recent Gerry and Elephant. The other co-executive producer is John Cameron Mitchell, the writer, director and star (both on stage and screen) of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Tarnation is equal parts Van Sant and Mitchell, an experimental art film that unashamedly recalls Andy Warhol's collaborations with Paul Morrissey while presenting a gay protagonist as an almost Christ-like figure. (The only image missing from this image-conscious film is that of Caouette up on a cross -- or maybe I blinked.) Caouette is so in your face -- brooding, crying, staring, moping, performing -- it's a struggle to decide if Tarnation isn't so much a catharsis as it is pure narcissism. Maybe it's both: narcissism as catharsis. One thing it isn't is explicitly revelatory; rarely does Caouette, or his addled mother, Renee, sit still long enough to speak honestly to the audience. You're supposed to learn what you can from Caouette's pastiche filmmaking technique, which really is the strength of the film. From slapping together and manipulating Caouette's home movies, interviews with his family members, and indie and experimental films all set to such brooding alt-rock artists as Low and the Magnetic Fields (the official band of the depressed gay male), Tarnation at times feels like a work of art.

Unlike Some Kind of Monster, you're left to wonder just what, if anything, the director is actually trying to document in his documentary. But, as documentaries continue to defy definition, both films dare you to watch.

click to enlarge Freak show: Director Jonathan Caouette (right) his mother, Renee, in Caouette's autobiographical and experimental documentary, Tarnation
  • Freak show: Director Jonathan Caouette (right) his mother, Renee, in Caouette's autobiographical and experimental documentary, Tarnation
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