directed by Jonathan Caouette
starring Jonathan Caouette, Adolph Davis, Rosemary Davis, Rene LeBlanc
In this age of talk shows, tabloid dramas and dragged-out reality shows watching someone’s whole life unfold before an audience seems so trivial and insignificant. Ironically this is precisely why Jonathan Caoutette’s film Tarnation is one of the must-see films of 2004.
Jonathan Caouette has managed to take his personal experiences and coalesce them into the most powerful documentary of the year. Obviously a packrat, Caouette’s film takes still life moments from his life and merges them with the remnants of his life. By utilizing interviews, photos, answering machine messages, family home movies, interviews and computer-generated effects, the audience follows Caouette from his adolescent journey to self-discovery through a turbulent adulthood as he struggles to care for his mother. As a result, Tarnationbrings taboo issues like child abuse, mental illness and crisis of self-identity out of the closet and into the multiplex.
It is Caouette himself that makes the film move. It’s his life after all. It begins with Caouette’s childhood in Texas, which was stunted before he was born, when his mother Renee fell from the roof and was paralyzed. On the advice of some neighbors who believed her affliction was more internal than external, his grandparents unwittingly exposed her to extensive sessions of shock therapy that thrust her into schizophrenia. Renee eventually married and gave birth to John.
From here John’s life gets no better. As a child he watches his mother being raped in front of his eyes, shuttles from foster home to foster home where he suffered both emotional and sexual abuse before returning to live with his grandparents. As a teenager he discovered his homosexuality and dabbled in punk rock, art and filmmaking. At this point Caouette began a sort of weird inventory of his existence by filming and recording the everyday happenings of his life. These recordings, photos ands journals formed the basis for this film.
As an adult we see Jonathan in a more stable and professional light and taking a wider role in caring for his mother. Here his journey of self-discovery shifts from being one that is introspective to one that is mostly outro-spective. He begins to question why his family turned out the way it did and how it could have been different. This leads to one of the most film’s tenser moments when he confronts his grandfather about why he treated his mother with shock treatments. By the end of Tarnation there is an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness for Renee, who could’ve had a much brighter life and a sigh of relief for Caouette who seems to have successfully weathered his turbulent storm.
Raw, gut-wrenching emotion drives Tarnation. Throughout the film Caouette’s pain becomes our pain and we feel it grab our hearts and tug at our emotion. It is this simple, open roughness that has made Tarnationevolve from being a critically acclaimed snapshot of a tragic family trying to hold on, into an important film about hope, family, friendship, discovery and love that opens the draperies on the dark dysfunctional underbelly of American suburbia.
Tarnationhas become a sensation on both coasts and on the Film Festival circuit. Made for just under $220, Tarnationwas assembled and edited by Caouette on his Apple computer. Despite the DIY feel and gritty presentation, Tarnationis one of 2004’s best films, is a surprisingly brilliant endeavor that resonates an intense emotional clarity that should dramatically affect anyone with a pulse.