Tarnation Review

Jonathan Caouette’s astonishing autobiography takes documentary filmmaking to another level entirely, chronicling his unusual life on home-movie and film over 20 years, through his mother’s shock therapy treatments for mental illness to his attempts to deal with his own personal issues and creative impulses. Noel Megahey reviews.

It used to be said that every person had at least one book in them, but in the age of reality TV the printed word is being superceded as a means of self-expression by the moving image and the video diary. If Tarnation is anything to go by, every person has at least one movie in them. Everyone now has a camera – whether a home-movie camera, a still camera or even the facility to take photographs on your mobile phone and, as has already been seen in Capturing The Friedmans, the opportunities are there now for capturing the important events in one’s life as they happen. This documentary format has been taken one stage further in Jonathan Caouette’s film Tarnation – a unique mixture of documentary, autobiography, self-therapy and just plain exhibitionism.

Using still photographs, audio recordings, recorded telephone messages, home movies, student movies, television clips and music from over 20 years, Caouette’s film attempts to capture who he is, where he comes from, what his relationships are with the people around him. Pulling this all together into a film he tries to work out where life is going to take him. The principal concern is that he will turn out like his mother and she is the driving force behind the film. A promising child model, his mother Renee LeBlanc was paralysed for 6 months after falling from a roof when she was 12 years old and was subjected to electroshock therapy treatment under the mistaken belief that her inability to walk was psychological. Caouette chronicles her subsequent troubles and illnesses, her hospitalisations and ultimately her overdose of lithium which provides the starting point of the film and initiates the flashback that shows the events leading up to the present day. We discover that Jonathan never knew his father Steve Caouette, who broke up with his mother before he was born, unable to deal with Renee mental problems. With a hospitalised mother and an absent father Jonathan therefore attempts to make sense of his life through his relationship with his grandparents, finding an outlet for his natural exhibitionism and precociousness in film and drama, filming himself constantly from 11 years old, coming to terms with his sexuality, making his move from Houston in Texas to New York City and through his gay partners and friends discovering a love for gothic punk rock and underground movies and a creative outlet for his personality.

It’s difficult to do justice to Tarnation in a review because this is not a regular documentary that has a straightforward narrative and structure imposed on the material in order to tell a story. Nor does it even stick to a conventional autobiographical format where the subject sits down and selectively sifts through their memories in the reflective maturity of an older age, fitting it all together into a meaningful structure that follows a straight line to an already achieved outcome. Caouette hasn’t yet reached where he is going and his film is more of a scrapbook, an elaborate montage of photographs, split screens, looped, repeated and manipulated images – a constant chaotic impressionistic and expressionistic assemblage of places, people, and influences, blending his own life with the television he watches and music that means something to him (all edited down by Caouette himself on Apple’s iMovie apparently at a total cost of $218). There is no narration and very little video-diary style talking to the camera, just plain titles alerting the viewer to the time and place and describing the background facts and the in-between tallies of hospitalisations and breakdowns as they occur.

Not everyone is going to understand or like the kind of film that Caouette has made here – and to many it will appear overly egocentric, exhibitionistic, voyeuristic and even freakshow-ish when it is not just cinematically self-indulgent and, in places, certainly staged – but this is all a part of who Caouette is and the film in this way actually shows an engaging personality, a unique perspective and a quite remarkable talent. Tarnation will also confuse many viewers by failing to provide an easy, familiar linear structure to follow and refusing to attempt to wrap the film up into a tidy conclusion. Nathaniel Kahn in his search to understand his father in his documentary My Architect provided the viewer with just such a comfortable conclusion, which the director himself knew was false and which was at best only a temporary answer. Caouette knows his film is a work in progress of a life in progress and it’s clear from this astonishing and unique film that what he has really delivered here is a calling card – a calling card alerting the world to a quite exceptional filmmaking talent that you will certainly be hearing a lot more of in the future.


Updated: Apr 18, 2005

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Tarnation Review | The Digital Fix