Tarnation (USA; 87 min.)


directed by: Jonathan Caouette
documentary
Tarnation
 
Hilary says: "I am pleased that I finally made it to see this film. I was quite moved by Jonathan Caouette's documentary/video diary/experimental film TARNATION. This multi-faceted piece had me completely engaged from the moment it came on the screen.

"Jonathan's chaotic childhood and his devotion to his damaged mother, Renee, are simply heartbreaking. I echo Chris' sentiment that Jonathan's life is not to be wished on anyone.

"In as much as this is a wholly personal piece portraying a one person's life, I also felt
that it was representative of his/my generation's affinity for pop culture. Jonathan retreats from his disordered life into the worlds of music, theatre, film, and TV. These alternative realities are a comfort to him, giving him the ability to imagine himself living somewhere else, with a different family, perhaps already rich and famous while still a young man.

"Notions of maturity and age-appropriate behavior are at the center of their lives. Through years of hospitalization, shock treatments, and medication Renee is stuck in
adolescence, an overgrown girl in cartoon character t-shirts unable to assimilate into the world around her. Jonathan is both rebellious child and nurturing parental caregiver to Renee, finally leaving their Texas home in his mid-20s, but periodically returning to care for her, and ultimately moving her to New York to live with him.

"For me, one of the most touching moments was 30-year-old Jonathan meeting his father, Steve, for the first time. There is immediate visual recognition that Jonathan is the spitting image of this man he's never known. For someone who surrounds himself with photographs and video footage of himself and his family, he must have felt like he was truly discovering something previously unknown with this meeting. As Jonathan and his father attempt to talk, Renee flits nervously around them, talking nonsensically and trying to bait Steve into an argument. Steve, a seemingly placid man with a heavy New Hampshire accent, sits back on the couch next to his son, unsure of what to make of this family of his.

"My only regret is that there was not more of Jonathan's and high school boyfriend Michael's production of BLUE VELVET. Their version was a musical, of course, using the
songs of Marianne Faithfull. That is a production I would love to see. C'mon Executive
Producer John Cameron HEDWIG Mitchell, make it happen! 4 1/2 bittersweet cats"
 
Michael says: "After winning accolades at Sundance, and later at the Chlotrudis Eye Opener, I was eager to see TARNATION, Jonathan Caouette’s experimental documentary about his difficult childhood and his mother’s struggles with mental illness. I was lucky to see a special screening of TARNATION at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with director Caouette in attendance. This one is sure to be a contender for the Best Documentary Chlotrudis Award, so I highly recommend you try to catch it during it’s one-week run at the Coolidge, or at the Kendall where it is still playing.

"Using powerful editing, Caouette meshes still photography, video, and carefully selected music to create a stark and powerful portrait of his life, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Houston, Texas. Jonathan’s mother Renee was a beauty who was featured on magazine covers and commercials in her teens. After a debilitating accident, Renee’s parents allowed her to undergo repeated electro-shock therapy as treatment to suspected mental illness. Between this ‘therapy’ and bouts spent hospitalized, Renee enjoys a brief marriage that yields her first son, Jonathan.

"Jonathan suffers horrors with his emotionally unstable mother, ultimately being placed in foster care where he was abused. His pre-teen and teen-aged years found him exploring his creativity, as well as his sexuality, all while struggling with a difficult and sporadic relationship with his mother, while living with his grandparents. Through it all, Jonathan shows an aptitude for acting, and camerawork, where it seems he is seldom without a video camera, filming himself and the goings-on around him.

"Jonathan merges powerful pieces of music with alternately gorgeous and harrowing visual montages that convey the texture of his upbringing. TARNATION is such a highly personal story it’s hard to imagine sharing it with audiences of strangers. Reminiscent of Augusten Burrough’s recent bestseller, Running with Scissors, Caouette doesn’t have the luxury of the distance provided by a book. I found it interesting that Caouette chose to present much of his narration as words on the screen, again reminding me of reading a memoir with an effective multi-media backdrop. For me, it was the first time I had seen a document that culturally so resembled my own formative years. Although younger than me, Caouette was influenced by many of the same films, television shows, and music that I was. In addition to the gay identity, I often felt that I was looking at the backdrop for my own adolescence (minus the harrowing family life). At one point I thought, ‘Who would put songs by Lisa Germano and Hex in a movie other than me?’

"TARNATION is a powerful and moving document that pushes the boundaries of traditional documentaries, bringing the popular personal memoirs of recent literature to the screen in an artistic and experimental way. It is also an indicator of the possibilities of filmmaking in today’s world with technology so readily available. TARNTATION was shot entirely with a video camera that could be purchased at Best Buy, and edited on computer, with MAC’s iMovie. 4 ½ cats

"Caouette answered a host of questions, many somewhat personal, with generosity and intelligence. His story is remarkable, and his accomplishments outstanding. In an added treat, fans of the 70’s children’s TV show, ZOOM were granted a treat, when an Asian woman raised her hand and informed Jonathan that she was Bernadette, from ZOOM. Bernadette, and the ZOOM kids are featured in TARNATION, and her presence at the screening was like the stars aligning for the evening."

 

Chris says: "I wouldn't wish Jonathan Caouette's life on anyone. Raised by a single mother who herself was left brain-damaged by ill-advised electroshock therapy treatments, he bounced around abusive foster homes until eventually winding up with his grandparents, whose behavior was also questionable. Obviously aware of his sexuality and sensing his life was a little different from an early age, he started filming himself and his surroundings.

"This documentary splices together those fragments of Caouette's life as if it were a 'This Is Your Life' documentary reimagined by Kenneth Anger or Derek Jarman. He audaciously, deliriously combines photographs and home video footage with snippets of signifying TV shows, movies, and pop songs, often in a kaleidoscopic whirl of ironic juxtapose (Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman' brilliantly, brutally accompanies one particularly disturbing montage), bleeding images and dreamlike video special effects. Although structured as a journal-like narrative, the results feel more poetic and associative.

"Like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (only with the director as its subject), this film isn't an easy one to quickly process, for it raises many unavoidable questions. Why does Caouette narrate the film mostly in third-person subtitles instead of his own voice-over? At what point did he comprehend that he was consciously constructing what would become this film? Is he exploiting his family (and himself) or documenting them? Most importantly, is what we're seeing genuine or something not entirely unstaged for the camera? TARNATION may frustrate viewers with these questions, but I thought it was equally fascinating because it brings them up in the first place. It begs/requires you to gradually piece together what you've seen much in the way Caouette stitched together this film.

"Given how popular this film may ultimately prove and continual advances in user-friendly technology (this was edited with iMovie, a basic, inexpensive computer program), we may see a lot of TARNATION imitations to come. But for all of its ethical conundrums, Caouette's film sets the bar admirably high for this type of approach: his collages are by turns amusing, startling, uncomfortable and downright cathartic. Waffling between 4 and 4.5 cats"

Bob responds: "Excellent points, Chris. I thought of Kenneth Anger while I was watching it too, but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I kept my mouth shut about it. It’s certainly more than the gay theme, but is it the ironic use of extra-diagetic music? It’s not the editing, but I suppose something about the way he mixes in images from pop culture… I don’t know.

"Did anyone see the piece he wrote for FLM (the promotional magazine they give away at the Kendall)? It’s just a list of things he loves and why, and a lot of the things/people he mentions are in the film, so maybe there’s something of an explanation there. I remember that he mentions that he thinks of Dolly Parton as being a thoroughly genuine person. Is that something he got from his mother and actually believes, or is he mentioning it in the article and throwing her into the film just because of the reference his mother makes to her? Or is it an ironic look at Texas, since I believe every clip of Parton in the film is from THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS? Or is he just playing with kitsch? Again, that begs the question of how much of all this is organic, and how much is artifice."

 
Diane says: "I ditto some of the questions that Chris raised: 'At what point did he comprehend that he was consciously constructing what would become this film? Is what we're seeing genuine or something not entirely unstaged for the camera?'

"Maybe the depersonalization that was the result of Jonathan's early PCP mishap gave him a perspective on his own life that manifests itself as artistic. I'm trying to explain why someone would set up a camera before calling the hospital where his mother is in critical condition. That requires a certain hubris.

"In response to another of Chris' questions: I don't think exploitation figures in. Caouette is genuinely interested in exploring and revealing himself and his family, to better understand who he will become.

"On the technique side: the choice to convey information by titles, heavy in the first section, annoyed me by its look and its rejection of other, better means of exposition. And some of the montages were too complex. But mostly I let the movie flow and tried to experience what the artist chose to set before me. This is a wonderful work of a new kind, yet not one that I hope to see many more of. 4 cats"

 
Bruce says: "A couple of years ago I saw Elaine Stritch in her one-woman show 'Elaine Stritch at Liberty' on Broadway. What struck me as impressive was her childhood infatuation with show business, her incorrigible drive to achieve stardom and her unflinching ability to discuss her alcoholism to outsiders. In ways, Jonathan Caouette is cut from the same mold. He had childhood fantasies of being discovered by Robert Stigwood and he certainly has not been afraid of airing dirty laundry in order to achieve fame. That may sound damning but it is not and the reason why is that TARNATION is a terrific achievement.

"Part Andy Warhol, part Lance Loud, part Joseph Cornell, part Rose Selevy, mostly original - TARNATION may change documentary film as we know it. TARNATION is mostly razzle-dazzle. If one were to remove the digital tricks and the clever computer based editing, my hunch is that what remained would be not very interesting to watch. But Caouette has an incredible sense of how to grab the attention of his audience, a sense I’d bet he inherited from his mother. He splits the screen in half, thirds and quarters (TIME CODE, anyone?); he turns photos into fun-house mirror stills; he adds a multitude of special effects to film that was shot before most of his techniques were possible.

"Caouette is working from a solid base of material. Starting at the age of thirteen he began making home movies of family and friends. Through these films he follows two themes: his mother’s schizophrenia; and his coming out and gravitating towards the openly gay lifestyle he lives today. While Jonathan’s grandparents are originally presented as normal boy/girl, husband/wife and mom/dad, we learn over the course of the film that they were not what they appeared. Renee, their daughter and Jonathan’s mother, was what they used to call a problem child. When she fell off the roof of their home she was never the same again. Between 1965-99, Renee was put in psychiatric hospitals over 100 times. Jonathan saw his mother raped as a toddler and was in and out of foster homes as a small child. His grandparents adopted him and raised him; they put him in psychiatric care just as they had his mother.

"Making such a film must be cathartic. Fortunately, Jonathan focuses on some good times such as the musical he did of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET using Marianne Faithfull songs. As she was singing The Ballad of Julie Jordan I couldn’t help but wonder if Jonathan had been influenced when he heard Faithfull singing that song in MONTENEGRO. At the end Jonathan says 'I love my mother so much. I can’t escape her.' He has the courage to celebrate her life, a life on which others in his shoes would gladly turn their backs.

"The downside to Elaine Stritch was her constant name-dropping during her performance, as though the people she had been connected to validated her talent. To Caouette’s credit, he did nothing of the sort. He appears to be well-connected himself since Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell are listed as producers and his co-editor Brian A. Kates has worked on THE WOODSMAN, THE LARAMIE PROJECT, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, SAFE and VELVET GOLDMINE. With the number of people involved in bringing TARNATION to the screen, I don’t believe for one single second that this film’s budget was $218. 4.5 cats"

Scot responds: "Well, Caouette explained that piece of publicity. The *production* budget was $218, meaning that’s how much he spent on video tapes. No money was spent on locations, payroll, or other equipment (since he borrowed or owned the cameras and already owned the editing software on his computer). I don’t think anyone is trying to make believe that the cost of transfers, publicity, etc. are included in that figure. When the film was complete and he first submitted it to a festival, that’s all the money he’s spent on making the film."

Bruce responds: "Scot, I do not doubt that is what he said. Do you think that the three film editors, two original composers, four sound technicians and the post-production supervisor all worked gratis?"

Michael responds: "I think all of that came after the film was originally finished and submitted to his first film festival. After that, he said he had to do a lot of re-editing and that’s probably where a lot of those additional people came in and got paid. But to make the actual film (that became the TARNATION that is currently playing in the theatres) it cost, if I recall correctly, $400,000. And that was mostly music and image licensing."

 
Carolyn says: "I did not like the style of this film. It was very frenetic with lots of semi-blurry images flashing by too quickly for me to process. That said, I think the style fits the life that Caouette had. The many disjointed pieces, foster homes, etc and going back now at 30+ trying to recreate a childhood anyone would wish to forget as quickly as possible would certainly lead to such a style. I can’t decide if I liked his use of written narration as opposed to spoken narration. And despite all the horror he endured the only time we see him in fear is at the end when he is talking about the future and how much he hopes he doesn’t turn out like his mother. 4.5 cats"