There are, of course, numerous differences between home movies and “proper” cinematic features, not least the fact that the former are largely made by complete amateurs. However, there is an area in which the home movie proves itself more adept than its theatrically released counterpart and that is in its candidness. Shot mostly be people who know everyone contained within the viewfinder, they are able to achieve not only a truly close-up look at their subjects, but also an informal quality ungoverned by who may actually see the footage captured. Indeed, the very nature of the home movie makes it difficult for anyone not involved with the on-screen action to actually connect or be engaged by what is happening – rather the sense of voyeurism and/or indulgence simply becomes too much. And yet what if subject is inherently interesting or able to provide an engaging (maybe even fascinating) narrative? Would the candidness translate into something more when played out in front of a wider audience?
Of course, we have been here before. The video diary is now a common tool in documentary making whether for television (there have been numerous examples in BBC’s ONE Life series) or cinema (as in Kirby Dick’s Sick : The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) and filmmakers such as Robert Frank and Sadie Benning have focussed almost exclusively on either themselves or their families to provide direct, challenging and sadly little seen works. Yet somehow Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is a different prospect; whilst it continually nods towards the avant-garde (just as Benning and Frank do), the central relationship between Caouette and his mother, and their respective mental illnesses and experiences, are such that it hooks you in – and keeps you there – on an entirely emotional level.
The film’s narrative proper opens with a lengthy series of intertitles which detail the early experiences of Jonathan and mother Renee. At the age of 12 she was given her first bout of shock treatment (a regime which would last many years) and to this day suffers from mental illness, even though we are told that there was no evidence to suggest that there was anything wrong in the first place. After Jonathan was born she was raped in front of him whilst hitchhiking and later arrested and imprisoned on the journey home. During this time Jonathan was placed into foster care where he was abused, and throughout the eighties was hospitalised on eight separate occasions for mental problems. Just as important as all of this, however, is the fact that at age 11 Caouette was given his first camera and so from this point onwards Tarnation is able to trace 20 years of direct autobiography.
And it is worth noting that this is, undoubtedly, autobiography and as such Caouette holds sway over the material (not only did he direct, but also write, produce and edit). Certainly, the facts are present as are the fascinating little details – such as his high school staging of a play based on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet set to the songs of Marianne Faithfull, or his early teens spent hanging out in new wave gay clubs disguised as a Goth girl – but also have to accept a certain level of manipulation. Indeed, from his commentary we learn a number of aspects from Caouette’s life (including the fact that he has a son!) which are never once mentioned in the film and are also privy to the fact that certain scenes are re-enactments or that the chronology has been altered slightly in order to accommodate missing gaps in the footage (the first meeting with his father – who abandoned Renee before she knew she was pregnant – actually happened a few years before the encounter we see onscreen). Moreover, the Caouette we get in front of the camera is very often to bee seen putting on an act – in bizarre monologues influenced (so we are told) by episodes of The Bionic Woman and Al Pacino’s turn in Scarface; in no-budget underground films made during the eighties with wonderfully evocative titles such as The Ankle Biter and The Goddam Whore - plus he’s incredibly cinematically savvy; there’s no concrete moment when we sense that he is consciously making Tarnation in its current incarnation, but there is a constant realisation that he has always been filming this stuff for a much wider audience than himself.
There is also another side to this cinematic knowledge, however, in the form of Caouette’s superb handling of the material and its execution. Edited on iMovie, Tarnation could easily appear overly tricksy if certain moments were taken in isolation, yet as a whole it has an indelible sense of mood and direction. Key influences would appear to be the defiantly leftfield and experimental; Derek Jarman springs to mind (himself not adverse to making ambitious home movies: many of the early shorts and later features such as The Last of England and The Garden) as do newer proponents of the New Queer Cinema, with Gus Van Sant even coming on board as one of the executive producers. Plus the actual visual manipulation of the footage – split screens, mirrored images, and other iMovie effects – gives Tarnation an almost animated feel which, at times, when combined with the melancholy soundtrack (Low, Mark Kozolek, a number of 4AD artists) produces a texture which feels quite unique even though Caouette isn’t actually doing anything especially groundbreaking (not that this is meant as a criticism).
Ultimately, however, Tarnation has to come back to the drama and in this respect it can suffer from the occasional lull. It’s an honest, if uncomfortable truth that the more ordinary or happy the events onscreen, the less interesting Tarnation becomes. However much it may engage on a purely cinematic level (and the logistics of mounting such a project are hard to ignore) it essentially boils down to a piece which primarily excites on a voyeuristic level. Some may find this a disquieting work as a result, though there’s no denying it exerts a certain fascination no matter what your stance.
Compiled from various formats – ranging from Super 8 to Hi-8 via Betamax – it would be foolish to expect anything too impressive from Tarnation’s presentation. Indeed, the image is often ugly and the sound difficult to make out, yet this is how it should be. The original 1.33:1 aspect ratio of much of the footage has been adhered to (occasionally a certain format will require a 1.66:1 or 1.78:1 framing) and there has been no great attempt to clean up the original sound. With regards to the latter, however, we still get a DD5.1 mix, but then this proves to be the perfect tool for handling the various aural montages as well as superb choice of music. Indeed, in both cases there is nothing from the disc’s manufacture which can be faulted and as such we are getting the film in as good a condition as possible.
Complementing the film itself we also have Caouette on commentary duties. Despite choosing not to discuss certain subjects and having a tendency to leave long pauses, he proves an engaging listen primarily because the subject matter is so fascinating. As I’ve already noted in the main review he points out his various moments of “artistic licence” as he calls it, plus he spends a lot of time filling in little gaps (about his half-brother, various friends and boyfriends through the years) as well as discussing the film on a technical level (the use of iMovie, the soundtrack selection). Indeed, it’s a well rounded piece, but then some may feel that Tarnation loses some of its mystery as a result and as such should approach it with caution.
Also present is a short film entitled Life in Reflection. This piece was the winner of a competition fronted by lovefilm.com which asked entrants to film their lives in a manner akin to Caouette. The result is a silent two-minute piece that proves moderately engaging, but also a little out of its depth amongst such high company; indeed, some may find its presence more than a little cheeky.
The extras package is rounded off by the original theatrical trailer, plus trailers for other Optimum releases (see sidebar). As with the main feature, all extras are with optional subtitles.