Hey, Judge Brett Cullum knows that guy!
"One of the top ten films of the year!"
Originally Tarnation was a home movie made for under $250, and edited on Apple's iMovie software. And yet somehow it became a stunning debut from a director who seemed to be channeling David Lynch, Jean Genet, Michael Moore, and Clive Barker simultaneously. It's a movie that you feel more than you watch. Oh yeah, and it's also a documentary made about growing up with a mother who is mentally ill. It's a tone poem, a scathing indictment of the Texas public health system, a tragedy, and a music video all rolled into one. One thing is certain, you've never seen anything like Tarnation.
Facts of the Case
Jonathan Caouette probably made Tarnation as therapy. He had a story he wanted to tell, and he used plain text coupled with music montages of home movies and photos to exorcise some intensely personal demons that haunted him for years. He watched his mother lose herself in a haze of misguided treatments, like shock therapy and dangerous doses of lithium, until nothing but a fractured shell remained of a beautiful woman. He had to deal with his own mental problems, including a condition he refers to as "depersonalization," where he feels he is living in a dream world all the time. The movie chronicles his and his mother's lives through answering machine messages, photos, old home movies, videos shot by a teenager, clips from movies, and scenes re-enacted by Jonathan and his friends. It is a psychedelic swirl of raging emotionalism. The movie seethes with anger, bitterness, frustration, sexual confusion, grief, loss, and decimation. But oddly enough, its most powerful statement is the one it makes about hope.
I saw Tarnation several months ago, and the name never registered with me when I saw the poster or the credits that open the film. I was watching the movie unspool its narrative about Jonathan's mother, Renee. Images flashed up of the man as a child, and eventually the movie got to his teenage years. It hit me then. I knew this kid! We weren't close, but we used to hang out in clubs and ran with the same group of people that revolved around the Houston underground Club Kid scene of the late '80s. I always thought Jonathan was quiet and demure. He would sit in a corner smoking, sometimes in a black wig and other times sporting some naturally long hair that eventually was dyed pitch black. We hung out with people who went by nicknames like "Bam-Bam," "Spooky," "Holly Wood," "Treasure," and "God." I sometimes went by "Domino," because my girlfriend used to tease me about wearing black and white obsessively. We all didn't know much about each other, except what was revealed during carefully calculated performances in the clubs. This was someone whom I had only seen in a world overflowing with artifice. Watching the film was like seeing Jonathan naked in a way that made me uncomfortable. His pained soul was seeping out of the frame.
It's an amazing film. Tarnation is likely to be the most personal thing you will ever see. Where it succeeds is putting you inside someone else's head for an hour and a half. It's like having your mind taken over by someone else's stream of thoughts, and it trumps the trippiest of David Lynch's works for being visceral and feral. Documentary films rarely have a sense of tension or dramatic flare, but Jonathan has accidentally stumbled upon a way to communicate the emotions behind the events to an audience. He has always wanted to make it big as an actor, but the truth is this is the part he was destined to play. No character, no facade, just himself pouring out what it's like for somebody searching for some resolution to a life of upsets and hard times. It shows two very moving things: what it's like to have a mother that is not there, and what it's like growing up worried that you will also fall victim to her mental disease. His mother, Renee, is the figure that looms largest over the entire film. Her story is the one that will transfix viewers immediately. It's a son's Valentine to a mom.
What the film ultimately achieves is an innovation. Documentaries have been around since the dawn of filmmaking, but here is the first one the MTV generation can call its own. Caouette is using styles that incorporate all the visual flare of music videos, and his use of text and images married with well-chosen music feels revolutionary. Tarnation is like seeing film developing a new language, and that is what makes it so exciting. More than just an extension of the current reality phase, it moves beyond simple documentation into emotional narrative. It opens up possibilities for other filmmakers to tackle personal subjects. Is Tarnation the floodgate that will usher in a whole new wave of amateur auteurs delving into the personal in radical ways? It's a perfect expression of how technology like Apple's iMovie software is going to force film to evolve. The larger question that looms over the movie is: how many people will start making movies of their lives?
DVD is the best way to see Tarnation. It was made on a computer screen, and the fullscreen transfer is the correct aspect ratio. I think the film works better in your own home than it does in the dark with a lot of strangers. It's easier to take that way. Also, the surround sound mix is amazingly well done. Don't let the initial budget fool you—they spent a fortune on music licensing and revamping the soundtrack with sound engineers from Skywalker Sound to deliver the final mix. Some of the film's more impressive visual transitions to split screen were also achieved by a team of professionals as well. Whatever state Tarnation was in before Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) became involved, it's certainly been polished for final release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Something is troubling about the extras on Tarnation. First up is the curious choice to include a commentary. The film explains itself all too well with its rolling type and music selections, so it was odd hearing the creator talk about the process of making it. He admits far too much. Jonathan reveals the initial cut of Tarnation was much longer—four hours by some accounts, and two hours and forty minutes by others. It used to include several fictional subplots, and staged dramatic scenes that John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant advised be cut for the film's proper release. Another troubling aspect is Jonathan admits to some artistic licenses he took with the story. You have to remember the man is an actor, and he out-and-out lies in more than a couple of spots in the story to make it more dramatic. I won't name every example, but he refers to Visions (a club in Houston) and says he had to sneak in dressed as a girl because he was underage. In truth, the club was for teenagers; he's embellishing to make it more dramatic. Even more troubling, he lies outright about a reunion with his father that happened much earlier than what the film states. He admits some of these untruths in the commentary. It would have been wise to avoid that. There are some unedited sequences from Jonathan's collection of video archives. The raw footage reveals just how skillfully the final cut was manipulated to make them seem more dramatic as well. Two bonus tracks with music and more footage seem superfluous and hardly support the film. The extras seem to undermine some of the good will the movie itself built up. Mark the history books, because for the first time I'm going to say "less would have been more" in the extras department.
This is easily one of the best movies of last year. It was criminally ignored at major award shows, and got a very minimal release throughout the country. It's definitely something you should check out. Though the topic of mental illness and watching footage of Jonathan's mother is hard, gritty stuff, ultimately the ending is one of unrelenting hope. In the end, Tarnation is a simple love story about two lost people who find each other again. What makes it unique is it packs more power than any major release from last year without a single star appearing in it. In this age when Hollywood seems to be endlessly recycling what worked in the past, it's nice to see a film that looks to real life for the future of cinema.
Tarnation, Jonathan, and his mother are all to be lauded. I hope this marks the beginning of a great career. But even if Caouette doesn't deliver another film as powerful as this one, he's got something to be proud of—his own life on the silver screen.
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