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.