Tarnation review

:. Director: Jonathan Caouette
:. Genre: Documentary
:. Running Time: 1:28
:. Year: 2004
:. Country: USA


With all that powerful brainstorming Hollywood screenwriters undergo and that these last couple of years it's been squeezed into conjugating overcooked sequels and low-fat remakes ad infinitum, it isn't surprising that attention has slowly but surely shifted from feature films to documentaries. After Michael Moore redefined documentary films as weapons of social deconstruction (Bowling for Columbine, Roger & Me and now Farenheit 9/11) and Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen reinvented the autobiographical exercise as a visual feast (The Kid Stays in the Picture), audience and filmmakers alike suddenly discovered that documentaries could compete—if not surpass—pictures, when approached with a bright and innovative angle.

Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation marks another bold step, pushing the limits of the documentary to create an emotionally rough piece bathed in raw visuals. Assembling footage he has shot since the age of 11, Caouette, now in his early 30's, has created a vibrant and often painful cinematographic diary of his life, growing up as a gay boy in a tough family environment. Since he was able to hold a camera, the young filmmaker started shooting his everyday life with its high and—mostly—lows, without knowing that this would feature enough drama to become the center of a film. Even though he is always on screen, from his teenage years as a new wave boy to his current life as a caring and responsible adult, the real center of Tarnation is his mother, Renee.

A former beauty, Renee saw her life turn upside down the day when, as a child, she fell from the roof of her house. Fearing that she was mentally suffering from the accident, her parents put her on electroshock treatment, which would ultimately create a real disorder that would partly be transferred to Jonathan. For a brief moment, she had a happy life as a wife and mother until her husband left them. From there her life went downhill, until Jonathan took her in to live with him and his boyfriend.

With its use of home footage, Tarnation can be compared to Capturing the Friedmans. But where the latter held a certain self-restrain, never clearly establishing the guiltiness or innocence of the protagonists, Caouette's approach is uncompromising and full-frontal, pointing the finger at his grand-parents, but most of all showing his mother's slow degeneracy, from a beauty to a crazy woman, which you know must have been a very painful process for him. Particularly there is one sequence where Renee is dancing and singing, holding a pumpkin. This is one of the most difficult moments of the film, simply because as Jonathan keeps following her relentlessly with his camera, you realize how disturbed she is. He could certainly have cut the scene shorter, but by keeping it rolling for us, he shows us how deep the damage is, even if for him—and for us—this is something we don't really want to see.

Even if he is omnipresent here, which without a doubt makes Tarnation a highly narcissist piece, and despite the fact that he is gay, which you know must have been an issue growing up in a state such as Texas, he becomes secondary to the story, taking a role as narrator. Renee is the heart of Tarnation, which might have happened unconsciously during the editing process, and even when she is not onscreen, her presence is felt, like a ghost; her life and Jonathan's are clearly bound.

At a more technical level, Tarnation is a great editing piece, blending together various formats such as Super-8, Betamax, VHS, Hi-8 and Mini-DV. The fact that Caouette didn't try to soften and standardize the various formats contributes to the creation of a harsh onscreen reflection of their painful life. But rather than showing Tarnation as a home video—what Capturing the Friedmans essentially was—, he incorporated his own artistic influences in the process, giving it an abstract and avant-garde look, in the vein of David Lynch's Eraserhead and Darren Aronofsky's Pi.

A great deal has been made of the fact that Tarnation was conceived for only a couple hundred bucks using Mac's bare bone iMovie software, which isn't really relevant as you can make a bad film for $200 and iMovie or with $80 million and Avid. What really matters here is that despite its low budget and amateurish technology, Tarnation is a fully professional piece, both artistic and powerful, and the involvement of Gus Van Sant (Elephant) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig & the Angry Inch) as executive producers certainly attests to his talent as a filmmaker.

  Fred Thom

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