(USA - 2003)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: -
Genre: Documentary
Director: Jonathan Caouette
Screenplay: Jonathan Caouette
Cinematography: Jonathan Caouette
Composer: John Califra, Max Avery Lichtenstein, Stephin Merritt
Runtime: 88 minutes

A model for inexpensive filmmaking, this intimate experimental confessional documentary from Jonathan Caouette is more disturbing than any horror film of recent times. Caouette began filming at age 11 and used twenty years of material to pastiche a look at his trouble life together on preloaded iMovie software for about $400,000 (though his cost was $218).

If you are looking for feel good entertainment, Tarnation is the last place you should turn. Caouette's family puts the D in dysfunctional. His mother Renee is further proof that if you don't have a problem, you can count on doctors to create one for you. They succeeded in shocking away her personality and making her delusional. Jonathan bounced around between foster parents, abused and sexually molested by some, until his grandparents adopted him. Unfortunately, these were the same malignant set that succeeded in screwing up his once promising mother's life.

Intellectually the film is pretty weak, everything must be assumed because despite all the years and the disparate forms of media very little evidence is really captured. Jonathan asks his family questions, but they don't really open up, and in the absence of that he shows footage of himself mugging and preening, dressed as a gaudy woman or getting a hug from his boyfriend (who is caught on film supporting him even when he's "waking Jonathan up"). I'm left with that familiar feeling, the same one I get almost anytime I turn on TV anymore, that whether or not this person has some talent (and usually they don't) they are just another boring narcissist. If I were unlucky enough to actually know them, after 5 minutes in their presence I'd be fleeing.

Caouette wants us to see how much his mother has deteriorated, but we only see small unrevealing snippets of her. It's obviously not all his fault. One problem in directing a documentary involving your parent(s) is it cannot start until you are old enough to get behind the camera, but the fact there's no footage from her child model days when she was supposedly okay forces the audience to just take his word. No one should ever enter a documentary believing they are seeing truth rather than perception, but outside of propaganda that limitation has rarely been so obvious. Even if the scenes we do see aren't exactly staged, he's set the documentary up in very black and white terms with his mother playing the hero and his grandparents playing the villains.

While the footage itself leaves a lot to be desired, the visceral psychedelic rapid-fire presentation masks many of the weaknesses in the source material. The early portion is the best, the quickly edited oversaturated and discolored kaleidoscope presentation of the disturbing footage looks like it could be a video from one of those no talent "metal" freaks noMusic Television tosses on from time to time to sell packaged rebellion. However, the footage and the way it's put together never comes off as overdone or showoffy, and actually has the power to get under your skin. Of course, the source of the ideas is not music videos, but rather the underground, experimental, horror, and musical films he experienced, and at various times made more surreal and out there home/student movie variations on.

The problem is this style isn't used throughout the film, and doesn't really fit the film Caouette is supposed to be making, a documentary about a dysfunctional family rather than an acid trip on pain. Derek Jarman was an avant garde filmmaker who regularly dealt with the pain of being gay, but the film was either about the pain or it was specifically about him. He'd mix every sort of film stock, really develop the audio and visual ends to create an original experience, but more importantly he'd choose the a style that fit either situation and stick to throughout. Caouette instead has a segment that could be Jarman next to a rudimentary documentary segment where you practically expect him to say, "Hi, I'm Jonathan, aren't I cute and tormented? Here's my mom. The same people hurt her too." In the end, he takes an electric time capsule of thirty twisted years and turns it into a psychological dud.

There's no attempt to answer Caouette's allegations, we are asked to take them as fact. It's fine that it's not about guilt or "justice" but rather the result of whatever did or is believed to have happened. In the end all that really matters is these people are screwed up, so given what the guardians "add" to the film it would be better without their participation at all. Really the only purpose they serve is putting a face on the evil, personifying it. When Caouette is eventually forced to include interviews with his family just before the end, he inarguably doesn't get anything interesting out of them (it doesn't help that they don't even want to be on camera) nor do they explain anything. To make things worse, the scenes are so amateurishly filmed they sometimes even have to be subtitled.

Tarnation is a compilation of pain; that's essentially what Caouette filmed. It's doubtful it's as valuable to the audience as it is to the author, but that's probably true of most personal art. In Caouette's case, filmmaking is better and less damaging therapy than the institutions provided, allowing him (and us) to at least try to understand where things went wrong.

One of Caouette's problems is "depersonalization disorder", which while not something anyone would want to have, may help the quality of an autobiographical documentary. It allows him to take a more detached look at himself, and the piece is even done in the third person with typed words, allowing for our own interpretation that subs for audio narration. At one point Renee says, "Sick parents raise sick children," and the film certainly shows many of the ways humans hand down their problems. Despite all Caouette has gone through, by escaping into fantasy and dreams, even though arguably disturbing and unhealthy ones, Caouette seems to have eventually matured into a functional human being. But then again Caouette wants to be an actor and that's exactly what he wants you to believe about himself. And be sure to buy your ticket to his next film while you're at it. Tarnation probably won't teach you anything, but it's worthwhile as a unique experience.


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