Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (IMDB) challenges expectations and confounds genre expectations in a fascinating mix of documentary, autobiography, and art film. Made for $218 and edited on Apple’s iMovie, Tarnation tells the story of Caoette’s emotionally turbulent Texas childhood using Super-8 and video clips taken by Caouette starting when he was a small child. But beyond the home movie clips, Tarnation is a story of someone putting together the fragments of personal experience, mixing not only home movie clips but also the movies, music, and TV shows that consistently shape how we view the world.

We learn, for example, that his mother, Renee, was subjected to twice-weekly shock treatments for over two years when her parents believed that she was faking paralysis after falling off the roof of their house. The shock treatments naturally changed Renee’s personality considerably, and Renee spent much of Jonathan’s childhood living in institutions while her son lived in various foster homes, where he was often abused, before moving in with his maternal grandparents.

But what fascinated me about the film was the degree to which Jonathan, even as a teenager, began mediating his experiences, in part by using the camera as a way to provide himself with some perspective. But it’s also visible in the ways in which Caouette, as an eleven-year old, performs roles for the camera. In one amazing scene, he plays an abused wife testifying on the witness stand about why she had to kill her husband. Jonathan plays the role perfectly, nervously twirling his bleach-damaged hair while explaining how “dope” made her husband crazy. In teh audio commentary, we learn that the perormance is a mix of Jonathan’s own experience and an episode of Bionic Woman he’d liked. Later, he and his first boyfriend directed a play for their high school, a msucial version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet featuring songs by Marianne Faithful. Later, Tarnation emphasizes Jonathan’s cinematic education, his introduction to the films of Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, John Waters, as well as low-budget horror by friends he met as club kid at a gay bar in Houston.

The film is careful to avoid easy answers about how Jonathan’s family fell apart. The shock treatments are clearly a major factor, but Caouette resists blaming Renee’s parents completely for what happened. Caouette also avoids a position of complete mastery over his experiences, skipping voice-over for titles that often convey uncertainty about what has happened. The use of iMovie not only creates a DIY aesthetic but also suggests the sense of fragmentation, of someone sorting through the fragments to put together a complete narrative. Ebert’s discussion of the editing in Tarnation pretty much gets it right: Caouette uses the clunky iMovie technology not simply as a cheap way to get his film made but as an integral part of the story itself.


  1. Nick Said,

    May 18, 2005 @ 9:31 am

    Hey Chuckk, Really nice comments about Tarnation, esp. the connections to the DIY aesthetic, and how the very technology of making the film itself (or any film) constitutes an aesthetic in itself.

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 18, 2005 @ 9:39 am

    Thanks. I’m still shaking off some end-of-semester writing cobwebs, but the DIY aspect, reinforced by the clunkiness of iMovie, really worked for me.

  3. Darren Said,

    May 20, 2005 @ 9:45 am

    Glad you got a chance to see it, Chuck. Tarnation was one of the most compelling films I saw in a theater last year, but when I sat down to write about it, I found myself concentrating on the aspects of the film that frustrated me.

    What do you think of Caouette’s posed scenes? For example, the opening scene where David returns home to wake Jonathan from a nightmare, or that signature shot of Jonathan and Renee asleep together on the couch.

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 20, 2005 @ 12:15 pm

    Darren, that’s a good question. In the commentary track he also reveals that some of his childhood scenes were restaged, with his son playing him as a child. Because Caouette is relatively explicit in calling the film DIY and not documentary, I don’t really have many ethical qualms, especially since it’s his story. And, although this is certainly stating the obvious, all documentaries require some degree of staging.

    I’d differentiate Caouette’s staged scenes from those in Mighty Times: The Children’s March, which I consider to be much more problematic, probably because of Caouette’s decision to distance himself from the documentary label.

    BTW, I enjoyed reading your review.

  5. mario Said,

    August 2, 2005 @ 9:58 am

    i Have seen the film and is absolutly mind blowing
    anyway there is something i do not like in the film. i saw this film in dvd and the option that you could delete the directors comments can not be set off. so i have to listen to the voice of the director during the hole film and even at the end when the ending credits are strolling up.
    i really would like to see this film without comments. or that is the version that you could see in the film….in any case is one of the best films i have seen in ages…

  6. Chuck Said,

    August 2, 2005 @ 10:53 am

    Mario, sorry to hear you had a bad version of the DVD. I liked Caouette’s director’s commentary quite a bit, but it’s certainly worth seeing the film without it.

    In particular, I was surprised by how candid he was about using re-enactments during certain scenes and by how that (temporarily at least) shaped my reading of the film.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment

Subscribe without commenting