Jonathan Caouette, “Tarnation’s” director/writer/producer/cinematographer/ composer/editor and leading man, took home movies and other family memorabilia, added some cultural flotsam and jetsam, ran them through a computer program, and made a searing and unforgettable documentary of love and loss.
It is primarily the story of Caouette’s mother, Renee, a lively and beautiful young girl whose parents authorized a series of shock treatments after she became paralyzed following a fall. From that point on, her life was one of mental illness and abuse. A brief marriage ended so quickly that her husband never knew she became pregnant with Caouette. She abruptly took her young son to Chicago, where she was raped as he watched. She was hospitalized and he was put in foster homes, where he was abused. Later he was adopted by his grandparents, Renee’s parents.
After he smoked two joints, not knowing they were laced with PCP, Caouette was diagnosed with a disassociative disorder, a sense that he was living outside himself. That is probably a significant factor in both his ability and his need for documenting his life. The film includes footage Caouette took of himself when he was still a child. At age 11, with a scarf around his head, he performs a Blanche Dubois-style monologue he wrote himself, compulsively touching his hair as he recounts his story, as though to reaffirm that he is still there.
He is still reaffirming his existance as he examines it. Caouette combines family photos and home movies with stock footage and simple special effects that splinter the images the way the events they depict shattered Caouette’s life. Fragmented story-telling mirrors fragmented lives (though it is jarring to be suddenly presented with a sibling we never heard anything about). Instead of a voice-over, background is provided by affectless, unemotional words that seem to float on-screen, adding to the sense of dislocation, of fractured fairy tale. Cauette does not tell us how he feels, but we see that he loves his mother deeply, even after the drug overdose leaves her brain-damaged. Her final scenes would verge on the grotesque, even exploitive, if not for the ferocity of his devotion to her.
It is already the stuff of legend that Caouette’s budget for this film was just $218. While that figure does not represent the many post-production costs (the licensing fees for the songs alone must have run thousands of dollars), the low-tech, modest quality of the film gives it a found art quality that suits its tone and source material.
Parents should know that this movie has extremely painful and mature material, with explicit and graphic sexual references including rape, mental illness, exceptionally strong language, drinking, smoking, drug use, a drug overdose, and harrowing mental and physical abuse. Strengths of the movie include its theme of commitment and survival despite the direst circumstances and challenges and its sympathetic portrayal of loving and loyal gay characters.
Families who see this film should talk about what kind of movie their own history and memorobilia would create.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Crumb and Capturing the Friedmans.