Sunday, April 24, 2005

Review - Tarnation

The boundaries between cinema and the audience have been broken in recent years with the wider availability of video cameras and accessible home editing software allowing anyone to make their own movie. Jonathan Caouette started early; at the age of 11 he got his hands on a super 8 camera and began obsessively filming himself, his family and everything they did. Twenty years later, Caouette has produced Tarnation, a film made up entirely of the video footage he shot, family photographs and scenes from the films which influenced the young filmmaker. The film tells the story of Caouette’s entire life.

Much of the footage Caouette shot is of himself, and he’s an interesting character whose desire to perform is clear from the start. At the age of 11 we see him doing an impersonation of a battered trailer-trash wife, at 13 he was dressing in drag in order to gain access to gay clubs and at 15 he staged a musical production of Blue Velvet at his high school. However, despite often focusing the camera on himself, the real meat of Tarnation concerns Jonathan’s relationship with his troubled mother. The film opens with him getting news of her lithium overdose and closes as he tries to deal with the aftermath of it. In between, he tells a tragic tale.

Caouette’s mother, Renee LeBlanc, was a former child model who had been temporarily paralysed in a fall at the age of 12. Her parents were encouraged to subject her to unnecessary electroshock therapy twice a week for two years, which left her mentally unstable, and she subsequently visited over 100 psychiatric hospitals between 1965 and 1999. Renee got married and gave birth to Jonathan, but her husband had already left her by the time he was born. She decided to leave Texas but after being raped in front of Jonathan she lost him to Social Services. Jonathan was then placed in numerous foster homes, and abused in many of them, before finally being adopted by Renee’s parents in 1981. It’s here that he first picked up a camera and started shooting.

This is a fascinating story and Tarnation is a passionate attempt for this young man to make some sense of it all. Caouette doesn’t provide any narration for Tarnation, opting to have subtitles accompanying the images in which he refers to himself in the third person. Clearly, this film has been a cathartic process for the director, and there is no doubt that watching it is a fascinating, if weirdly voyeuristic, experience. Much of it is difficult viewing, not least the scene when Jonathan confronts his grandfather over his mother’s claims that he abused her, or the sequence when Renee, brain-damaged by her lithium overdose, sings incoherent, childish songs into the camera. Most sons, seeing their mother in such a state, would turn the camera away but Caouette sustains the shot long after the scene has become uncomfortable. Like last year’s Capturing the Friedmans, it seems his only response to adversity is to keep filming.

Of course, a film with subject matter such as this should be difficult viewing, but Tarnation is not hard to watch just for that reason alone, Caouette’s approach to the material also makes this something of a chore. At the age of 12, Caouette developed a depersonalisation disorder - the sensation of being outside yourself, as if living in a dream - when he smoked two joints laced with PCP. Watching Tarnation, you’d be forgiven for thinking he suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. Caouette cuts between different scenes and film elements with bewildering speed and inconsistency, and he throws in endless graphics and visual trickery for good measure. It doesn’t help that the footage is often repetitive and unfocused, and Caouette’s avant-garde approach robs the film of much of its emotional impact.

Edited on a home computer for a total cost of little over $200, Tarnation is an intensely personal, unflinchingly truthful account of a troubled upbringing. It’s also staggeringly self-indulgent, narcissistic and, to be honest, not an easy film to watch. However, there are some arresting moments, it benefits from a well-chosen soundtrack and the director is clearly a creative and talented individual. It will be interesting to see what Caouette, after completely exposing his life on screen, will do next. He may well go on to make more films, but I doubt he’ll ever find a more interesting subject matter than his own family.