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.