Fusing together home-movie clips, archive photos, video confessions and a stunning musical landscape, Tarnation presents an autobiographical portrait like no other. The film encapsulates the life of director Jonathan Caouette and the relationship he shares with his mother Renee, a former child celebrity who, having suffered a fall from a window, received electroshock therapy throughout most of her life, resulting in a personality change so drastic that she became unrecognizable from her former self. This tragic nature is reinforced as it becomes known that there was never anything psychologically wrong with her. Through documenting his mother’s condition, the rest of his family, and his own rites of passage, Caouette demonstrates how he transcended the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his youth.
Opening with Renee’s birth and subsequent accident, Tarnation follows Jonathan’s troubled youth, dealing with neglect and drug experimentation, combined with his mother’s declining condition, through to his discovery of alternative culture and his move to New York, where he finds solace in the gay scene. While his social life begins making make sense, his family’s reaction to Renee’s condition evokes a sense of uncertainty in his life, while the love he shares with his mother is never doubted. Through a sensory assault of captured experiences, Caouette pours his soul into a documentary that defies description; all the more impressive considering the film was made on a budget of $218, using the basic Apple iMovie software, over a period of twenty years. While the marketing campaigns of many films claim that the piece in hand redefines the nature of cinema, few defy convention like Tarnation, as raw home-video footage is manipulated in such a stylized and inventive way that it shares more with avant-garde cinema than a typical no-budget documentary. That is not to say, however, that the film has no clear direction, more that the evocative nature of the images; the frenetic pace of editing and emotional impact of its subjects propel the film to its fitting and humbling conclusion.
The therapeutic nature of cinema is typified here as the troubling, and at times traumatic, experiences were channelled through Caouette’s camera, thus creating a sense of separation from the events between him and his subjects. Though the true greatness of the film lies in his ability to translate the footage into an understandable cinematic language, at times it feels like a Lynchian nightmare (ironically the film’s funniest moment comes through an adolescent Jonathan directing and performing in a musical-theatre production of Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) with the actors lip-synching to Marianne Faithful songs). He also demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of his own character, as exemplified by a powerful monologue recorded at age eleven where he adopts the persona of a Texas housewife vividly describing incidents of domestic violence before pulling a gun on her husband – reinforcing the ways in which Caouette was able to deal with his own personal traumas. The scenes featuring Renee herself, while frequently uncomfortable, are never used for exploitation purposes, and offer a genuine insight into mental illness and how families cope with such occurrences.
While the film’s content is understandably dark, Caouette injects an urgent sense of hope and euphoria, as shown through his emancipation in New York and the counterculture companions he forms relationships with. This range of emotion is perfectly complemented by Max Avery Lichtenstein’s hauntingly-beautiful score, which echoes artists such as Nick Drake, and continued by a wealth of Caouette’s carefully-chosen pre-recorded tracks from the likes of Low, the Cocteau Twins, Iron and Wine, Glen Campbell, and The Magnetic Fields. The experimental and highly-personal nature of the project may not resonate with everyone, though those who are open to its visual and emotional assault will find a heartbreaking yet exhilarating masterpiece.