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Movie Review: Tarnation

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Upon release, Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical documentary Tarnation caused quite a stir, and deservedly so. Using software that just happened to come with his partner’s new computer, and plundering home movies, photographs, video and audiotapes going back to when he was 11, Caouette has sculpted a stunning, powerful, excruciating film, playing beat the clock (to get it to the Sundance Festival) and bringing it in for an amount that gives new meaning to the term “shoestring budget” ($218.32). Could we call it a “toothpick budget”?

To my mind, Tarnation breaks many rules. It may be the ultimate “Hail Mary” film, taking incredible risks, using them as a springboard to intensity and transcendence. The content is often extremely, impossibly personal. Wrenching. But none of it feels self-indulgent or remotely self-pitying. Caouette himself spends a lot of time in front of the camera, but manages to avoid self-consciousness. A great deal of crucial (and harrowing) information is divulged in on-screen text, which, when you think about it, seems outré. Yet it has just the right touch. It buffers the jolt, keeps the material from overwhelming you.

Tarnation (a euphemistic term for damnation) charts the overlapping lives of three generations: Jonathan Caouette himself, his mother Renée, and his grandparents, Adolph and Rosemary. We learn about the key events that have shaped them and sent them careening into oblivion or despair, the ill-advised choices and random, traumatic incidents that have forever changed the course of their momentum. Tarnation divulges painful, unnerving material without repulsing us. Without prompting us to turn away, Caouette makes it clear that tragedies can (and do) happen randomly, that well-meaning families can mistakenly make decisions that will have horrific, grotesque consequences. And if anyone can be “punished” for their fallibility then none of us are safe. Tarnation suggests that it’s not about deserving the life we get, but surviving it.

There is a tenderness in Tarnation that tempers the unblinking footage of Caouette, his mother, his grandparents. We partake of their everyday lives, their quips, their friction, their meltdowns. We see Caouette’s parents and grandparents when they were young, attractive and successful, but also after time, abuse, and neglect have diminished them. Curiously, Caouette seems hardly changed at the age of 32. The adult seems childlike and the boy precocious and jaded.

Pretty early in the film, we see Jonathan perform a bizarre monologue, dressed in spare but convincing drag. "Hilary Laura Lou" talks about her husband’s abuse: pregnant and kicked in the stomach. Tied to the bed and beaten. Despite the trashy, cartoony vibe, it also has a dark, satirical side. We know this kind of thing goes on, but it’s obvious he’s not playing it straight. And when it hits us an 11-year-old boy is doing a viable read on this acrimonious spoof, it’s appalling, heartbreaking. Fascinating.

This is one of the glorious aspects of Tarnation . It’s a mistake, I believe, to take any particular sequence in just one way. His mother’s “pumpkin dance,” for instance. At first it just seems playful and jokey. But as it continues way past the point of joviality, we start to gather something’s wrong. And it’s not just Renée’s eccentricities or failure to respond to certain questions. Often it’s what she divulges when she cracks out of turn. I think Caouette gives most of this an off-hand, casual feel that enhances the plausibility, that makes it less far removed from our own experience, and therefore harder to dismiss.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe the visual style of Tarnation. When you consider the distinct, disparate elements, and how seamlessly, intuitively they hang together, it’s what? Cinematic collage of the highest order? But it goes so far beyond that. Montage may be the technique, but it’s all about motion and vibrance. It’s all about illumination and epiphany. We see Caouette’s early experiments in filmmaking, monologues and trashy-satirical slasher movies. Some of it reminded me of Kenneth Anger and Christopher Rage. Into this was spliced photographs of his grandparents, his mother, himself, Desiderata in voiceover (!) videotapes from the present, television shows, and movies from the '70s and '80s; on and on it goes.

Filmmakers have been dabbling with this technique for years. In music videos, television, feature-length films we see the dazzling special effects, the jittery, frantic, hand-held camera that distracts and intrigues but only intermittently connects to content. But Jonathan Caouette makes it all coalesce, with astonishing results. His devices, his jumps from raw to slick to grainy to trippy, bolster and deepen the subject matter. Tarnation could have been just another pastiche. Instead, by diligence, dedication and flying by the seat of his pants, he’s taken a quantum leap into mastery. Into brilliance.

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About Christopher Soden

  • Tarnation is one of the most remarkable things I have ever experienced at the New York Film Festival. Although it took in a grand total of less than $600,000 in theaters, I would guess the director thinks it miraculous that it found an audience at all–although his ego is rather sizable, come to think of it.

    In fact, aren’t most artists, talented or not, narcissistic? Certainly overtly autobiographical ones have been known to be so–and they are not always likable either. Whether he is always telling the literal, factual truth is an ambiguity that may make the work better, more resonant–he never actually claims not to be exaggerating and/or including both paranoid fantasies and real memories.

    At any rate, it is such a one-of-a-kind work: film editing as alchemy using bits of one’s own life as raw material…one wonders what he could possibly do for an encore. Supposedly one of the writers of Hair told him he wants him to make a new film version. I think maybe he should film his high school musical adaptation of Blue Velvet.

    There was recently another documentary about an artist from a small town, involving mental illness, a la Tarnation. This one is biography rather than autobiography, and not nearly so daring formally….but it was deeply moving and often very funny too. It’s called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Stephen Holden in the NY Times did a great disservice by writing a dismissive review concentrating on Mr. Johnston’s musical accomplishments or lack thereof. Many think him a genius; I’m not sure what I think, but it’s beside the point in appreciating this marvelous film.