Review: ‘Tarnation’

Jonathan Caouette's striking debut is an experimental self-portrait, a collage of personal artifacts and found footage that details his life amid a family forced to deal with mental illness. Highly unorthodox docu's commercial future is uncertain, but pic should travel widely on fest and avant-garde circuits.

Jonathan Caouette’s striking debut feature “Tarnation” is an experimental self-portrait, a collage of personal artifacts and found footage that details his life amid a family forced to deal with mental illness. Tunnel-vision impact of hyperkinetic assemblage is at times more impressive than the occasionally self-indulgent content. Highly unorthodox docu’s commercial future is uncertain, despite name patronage of exec producers Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig”). But pic should travel widely on fest and avant-garde circuits.

Caouette was born in Texas to a mother who’d been a child model and a father who soon abandoned them. Mom Renee had fallen off a roof some years before and had been briefly paralyzed. She was administered electroshock treatment for two years, which, rather than helping, seemed to have triggered full-on schizophrenia.

At one point she ran off to Chicago, where she was raped in front of her young son. Jonathan was subsequently placed in various foster homes before being turned over to his grandparents’ care; both he and his mother spent years in and out of institutions.

As early as age 11, filmmaker is seen improvising a female-character in a mad scene with alarming intensity for his own vidcam. This eagerness to “act out” via video one-man-shows, music lip-synching and “journal” entries is psychologically telling, while providing pic with a wealth of you-are-there material. Still, so much intense concentration on the filmmaker himself can be overbearing, making it hard at times to tell where Caouette’s real emotions end and his penchant for theatrical histrionics begin. However, since those early videos, Caouette has been diagnosed with depersonalization disorder (simply put, a sense of being an outside observer of one’s own life), so perhaps that’s the point.

After years of living with his grandparents — who don’t appear to have a very firm grip on sanity, either — Jonathan moves to New York City, where he finds a stabilizing relationship with boyfriend David. Later parts of film detail visits by a more grounded Renee (who finally moves in with son and lover), an uncomfortable “reunion” with Jonathan’s long-absent father, and the helmer’s confrontation with his elderly grandpa over his mom’s accusations of childhood abuse.

Getting so close to real-life mental illness, via footage that spans many years, renders “Tarnation” a uniquely potent experience. Caouette heightens that intensity by aping a sense of chaos and horror in editorial terms: Split-screen or densely layered images, frenetic cutting, color distortion, pop-culture touchstones (film and TV clips, etc.), and audio tracks stacked to cacophonous effect.

By contrast, pic’s connective glue is a terse series of intertitles spelling out major off-screen events (Jonathan’s meeting David, Renee’s latest hospitalization). Framing otherwise chronologically ordered content is filmmaker’s response to a crisis last year, when he was informed of Renee’s near-death from a Lithium overdose.

Whether filmmaker Caouette can find another subject that equally suits his high-octane, low-tech style is an open question. But “Tarnation” demonstrates a bold grasp of its medium. For the record, helmer reports his total budget was $218.32.



A Jonathan Caouette production. Produced by Stephen Winter. Executive producer, Gus Van Sant. Co-executive producer, John Cameron Mitchell. Directed, written, edited by Jonathan Caouette.


Camera (color/B&W, Sony HD cam), Caouette; music supervisor, Caouette. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Frontier), Jan. 24, 2004. Running time: 87 MIN.
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