Tarnation: Pulling the Heartstrings with a Shoestring Budget
Rob Levy
12/5/2004 1:47:11 PM


In this age of talk shows, tabloid dramas and dragged out reality shows, watching someone’s whole life unfold before an audience seems so trivial and insignificant. Ironically, this is precisely why Jonathan Caoutette’s film Tarnation is one of the must-see films of 2004.

Jonathan Caouette has managed to take his personal experiences and coalesce them into the most powerful documentary of the year. Obviously a packrat, Caouette’s film takes still life moments and merges them with the remnants of his life. By utilizing interviews, photos, answering machine messages, home movies, and computer-generated effects, the audience follows Caouette from his adolescent journey to self-discovery through a turbulent adulthood as he struggles to care for his mother. As a result, Tarnation brings taboo issues like child abuse, mental illness and a crisis of identity out of the closet and into the multiplex.

It is Caouette himself that makes the film move. It’s his life, after all. It begins with
Caouette’s childhood in Texas, which was stunted before he was born, when his mother Renee fell from the roof and was paralyzed. On the advice of some neighbors who believed her affliction was more internal than external, his grandparents unwittingly exposed her to extensive sessions of shock therapy that thrust her into schizophrenia. Renee eventually married, gave birth to John.

From here John’s life gets no better. As a child he watches his mother being raped in front of his eyes, shuttles from foster home to foster home where he suffered both emotional and sexual abuse before returning to live with his grandparents. As a teenager he discovered his homosexuality and dabbled in punk rock, art and filmmaking. At this point Caouette began a sort of weird inventory of his existence by filming and recording the everyday happenings of his life. These recordings, photos ands journals formed the basis for this film.

As an adult we see Jonathan in a more stable and professional light and taking a wider role in caring for his mother. Here, his journey of self-discovery shifts from the introspective to inquiry. He begins to question why his family turned out the way it did and how it could have been different. This leads to one of the most film’s tenser moments when he confronts his grandfather about why he treated his mother with shock treatments.

Raw, gut-wrenching emotion drives Tarnation. Throughout the film, Caouette’s pain becomes our pain. It is this simple, open roughness that transforms itself from a series of snapshots of domestic tragedy into an important film about hope, family, friendship, discovery and love that opens the draperies on the dark, dysfunctional underbelly of American suburbia.

Tarnation has become a sensation on both coasts and on the Film Festival circuit. Made for just under $220 Tarnation was assembled and edited by Caouette on his Apple computer. Despite the DIY feel and gritty presentation, Tarnation is one of 2004’s best films--a surprisingly brilliant endeavor that resonates an intense emotional clarity that should dramatically affect anyone with a pulse.


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