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Tarnation (2003)

Your greatest creation is the life you lead

Directed by:

Jonathan Caouette

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 91 minutes

US Certificate: Unrated UK Certificate: 15


Apart from being a dialect word from the American South denoting a state of damnation, ‘Tarnation’ is a groundbreaking documentary (of sorts) by Jonathan Caouette about his hellish childhood in a small Texas town, and his complicated but enduring relationship with his mother Renee. She was a successful regional child model in the sixties, but following a depression and a mysterious fall at age twelve, her parents Rosemary and Adolph had her regularly admitted for shock treatment, leading to a lifetime of severe mental instability. Between frequent visits to psychiatric hospitals, she got married in 1972, and though the husband, Steve, was quick to disappear, he left Renee pregnant with Jonathan. At age four, Jonathan was witness to his mother being raped by a stranger, and was placed in a foster home where he was emotionally and physically abused. Eventually adopted by Renee’s parents, Jonathan suffered for years from depersonalisation disorder after taking spiked drugs, discovered the gay New Wave scene and underground film movement, rebelled violently against his family, fled north to create a new life in New York, and eventually invited Renee, now brain-damaged from a lithium overdose, to come live with him and his boyfriend David Sanin Paz.

In this compelling real-life story of family, madness and tainted love, there is more than enough material to fill several documentaries – but from it Caouette has fashioned an idiosyncratic work – sometimes uplifting, sometimes annoying, but never anything less than riveting – that exists in a sort of no-man’s-land between documentary fact and dark fiction. Compiled mostly on iMovie from an extraordinary collection of photographs, audio tapes, home videos and television samples, ‘Tarnation’ is a kaleidoscope of computer-tweaked editing that transforms intimate, often intrusive family records into what might be variously described as a voyeuristic exposé, a gothic fairytale, a psychedelic diary, a tawdry testimony, art(house) therapy, indulgent narcissism, or a ‘reality TV’-inspired cry for help.

Whatever the case may be, it makes for some uncomfortably confronting viewing. If Renee’s problems began soon after she was spotted by a visiting New York photographer and elevated to childhood celebrity, one is left wondering whether this film, again by a New York-based photographer, is closing the circle on Renee’s past, or once again just exploiting her image. ‘Tarnation’, however, is not really about Renee – rather it is all about Caouette, who gurns, preens and poses before the camera as though it were his oldest friend and closest confidante (which clearly it is), building from the wreckage of his life a highly artificial monument to himself. Not only are the images presented in a phantasmagoria of split screens, time lapses and distorted filterings, but many of them are not at all what they purport to be. Pictures of Caouette’s son Josh (whose very existence is studiously elided in the film) have been made to look like old footage of Caouette himself; High-8 film of a current friend of Caouette’s and her children is digitally doctored to look like old Super 8 footage of his foster family from the seventies; key sequences that open and close the film are in fact staged reconstructions; and so on, as Caouette reassembles and reappropriates anything and everything for his own purposes.

The long passages of text that accompany the pictures are just as devious, and if their scrupulous use of the third person pronoun (“Jonathan was four years old”, etc.) in any way implies documentary objectivity (as opposed to just suggesting Caouette’s clinically depersonalised viewpoint), this is belied from the outset by the first four fairtyale words: “Once upon a time…”. For this is less a straight account of a life unhinged than a queer refashioning of the self as hero rather than victim – in a story over which Caouette has finally been able to exercise control so that it is truly his own.

It's Got: Documentary, shockumentary, and shlockumentary; found footage pushed to its limits by iMovie tweaking; harrowing family drama; scenes from Caouettes school musical version of David Lynchs Blue Velvet; a lead who likes working with both ends of the camera.

It Needs: For Caouette to leave his relatives space to answer his badgering questions - the voice of his grandfather Adolph, in particular, seems to suffer from very harsh editing in Caouettes apparent need to paint him as the monster.

DVD Extras Scene selection; short film by the winner of the Short Film competition in association with Love Film and selected by Jonathan Caouette; theatrical trailer for Tarnation; Optimum trailer reel; fascinating full audio commentary by Jonathan Caouette, who alludes to an earlier 3-hour cut (which, heh heh, "just seemed a major exercise in narcissism") plus a projected book and sequel, documents the sources of his visual materials (many of which are not what they seem), reveals that he in fact met his father many years before the film implies, and declares his fantasy of having three different commentary tracks. Version reviewed: Tarnation (Optimum Home Entertainment) DVD Extras Rating: 7/10


This rivetingly narcissistic arthouse documentary puts the “I” in iMovie.