There are familiar words, epithets usually, that one takes for granted without really knowing what it means. For me, “tarnation” was always such a word, and upon investigation it turns out to mean “the act of damning, or the condition of being damned.” It’s a great word and, in its latter sense, an absolutely perfect title for Jonathan Caouette’s startling, haunting but flawed video scrapbook that opens this Friday in Chapel Hill’s Chelsea Theater. Caouette can be forgiven for considering himself damned, for his youthful misery was foretold. He was born to a mentally ill mother and his father skipped town before his birth. Culled from 160 hours of home movies taken over 30 years, Tarnation is a record of the existence of Caouette, his mother Renee and his loving but dotty grandparents Adolph and Rosemary. Born in Texas but now residing in Brooklyn, Caouette edited that footage into a raw account of a turbulent childhood rocked by parental absenteeism, mental illness, suicide attempts and sexual precocity. In its excavation of dysfunctional families through home movies it obviously recalls Capturing the Friedmans, and in its exploration of a haunted family of mostly doomed artistic personalities it has clear precedent in Crumb.
Lesser filmmakers, confronted with the material of Caouette’s life, might choose an oppressively workmanlike style that dutifully follows characters through the courts and hospitals. But the striking and original Tarnation is composed mostly of home movie footage, as opposed to footage that was shot specifically for the purpose of making this documentary. As a result, Tarnation is an unspooling of one young man’s inner life, complete with soundtrack. There’s an effortless flow to the images as they pour forth; Tarnation is often an intoxicating watch. The video and film stock change over time, with the earliest family footage on Super-8 and Caouette’s earliest self-shot footage on grainy VHS. The sound, too, is of variable quality.
Caouette edited the film on his boyfriend’s iMac computer with the bare-bones but serviceable iMovie software that came bundled onto the machine. As he rooted around in the video archives of his life, he supplemented the images with songs, just as people do when they compile imaginary soundtracks to their lives. The result was a three-hour first cut, which nonetheless attracted the attention of John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy). Both men lent their expertise and resources toward winnowing the film down to its present 88-minute length. With its mish-mash of home movies and clips from films and TV shows as varied as Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, the Diana Ross vehicle The Wiz and that great 1970s PBS kids show Zoom!, Tarnation shows Caouette’s debts to experimental cinema and to the postmodern media blender of the last generation.
But if Tarnation is an agreeably hip film to watch with its often dizzying montage of chaotically swirling fragments of images and sound, it’s nonetheless a dish of often horrifying ingredients. But here, too, Caouette makes the surprisingly effective decision to deliver the saddest and most shocking details in print, titles superimposed over the images. So, we read that his mother Renee was an adolescent beauty whose “life began to be very sad” the day she fell off her parents’ roof. Although she wasn’t badly hurt, something seemed to change in her brain: She stopped communicating. Her parents–this was the early 1960s–decided to have their child treated with electroshock therapy. But she was never the same. She married a man who left her when she was pregnant with Jonathan. When Jonathan was still a toddler, Renee took him on an ill-planned trip to Chicago with no money in her pocket. A man in Chicago raped her in front of her son’s eyes. On the way back to Texas, she was jailed and Jonathan placed in temporary foster care.
Bad stuff, gravely conveyed with silent titles. And that’s just Renee, who would spend much of her adult life in mental hospitals, diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Jonathan eventually was raised by his maternal grandparents, but first he endured violence and abuse in the Texas foster care system. His adolescence was frightening, with a near-lethal encounter with tainted marijuana leading to a spate of hospitalizations. His diagnosis was depersonalization disorder, a condition characterized by a sensation of living outside your body, as if in a dream.
Ironically, my reservations about this film stem from Caouette’s depersonalization. In Tarnation, it manifests itself as extreme narcissism, a fascination with the self that seems inappropriate for someone as self-aware as Caouette seems to be as an adult who has escaped the clutches of his unfortunate childhood. On the other hand, some of the most remarkable footage in the film is of young Jonathan performing for his own camera, something he began doing when he was 11. In one scene, the preteen boy delivers a monologue in the voice of a battered housewife, an act that may have been inspired by Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed. With his hands fluttering near his face in perfect mimicry of a battered woman and a pitch perfect Texas trailer accent, Caouette’s performance is beyond acting. It’s channeling. It’s as if his body has been taken over and someone else is speaking.
Elsewhere, we see scenes of Caouette’s remarkable youthful creativity. There are hilarious clips of short films he made as a teenager, including one starring his grandmother called The Goddam Whore. There’s footage of a musical adaptation of Blue Velvet he conceived and directed in high school, with the actors lip-synching to Marianne Faithful songs. Caouette also cobbles together found-footage to illustrate the musical he dreamed of collaborating on with musical producer Robert Stigwood, in which Robby Benson would play himself and Joni Mitchell would play his mother.
As charming and as voyeuristically entertaining as such sequences are, Tarnation wears thin as Caouette ages. Despite his increasing self-awareness, the filmmaker continues to point the camera at himself. Him, him, him: Tarnation reaches an apotheosis of self-regard when Caouette makes his inevitable escape to New York in his mid-20s. There’s more than a little preening, of saying “Look at my beautiful gay life in New York.” Worse, Caouette closes the film with a baldly staged scene in which he sits in front of his camera and screws his face into a fountain of tears, the better for bringing his tale to a satisfying, melodramatic and conventional close.
For years now, proponents of the digital film revolution have foretold the day when feature films would be within the reach of anyone with a cheap camera and some desktop editing tools. Tarnation was made for a reported budget of $218.32, and it represents the fulfillment of the promise of independent digital filmmaking. Even as Tarnation realizes that ideal of cheap, personal filmmaking, it also reveals the limitations of that goal by its incessant navel-gazing. As disappointingly narcissistic as the film becomes in its late stages, there’s also a more conventional documentary approach as Jonathan’s work on the film coincides with the need for emergency intervention with his mother back in Texas. In one harrowing and merciless shot, Caouette trains his camera on his momentarily demented mother playing with a small pumpkin and singing nonsense to herself as if she’s completely lost her mind. It goes on for several minutes and it’s heartbreaking.
Even if Tarnation is occasionally self-absorbed, such scenes remind us of what Jonathan Caouette has had to confront in his life, and how far he has come to make such a beautiful and charming film.