From the 42nd New York Film Festival: Tarnation
Jonathan Caouette has known he is gay for a long time, so his film Tarnation is a different kind of “coming out” experience. Caouette’s film is a quasi-experimental documentary about his family and his life growing up, and it is not a historiography so much as an expressionistic montage of trauma, filtered through memories, abuse, drugs, dreams, and repression. Facts are loose but vividly rendered in Caouette’s film, and presumably in Caouette’s memory. Half-way through the work the no-nonsense, third personal clinical titles which contextualize most of the film’s footage, used instead of spoken narration, report that Caouette experiences the disorder known as depersonalization, where the world appears dreamlike and at a distance. Since the same can be said for the film and its insight on Caouette’s experience growing up with a mother who jumped in and out of psychiatric hospitals for decades and was administered untold amounts of shock therapy as a child and young adult, Tarnation appears more feverish recollection than factual revelation. And it is its combination of fever-dream aesthetic told through distorted, decayed, hyper colorful montage and real evidence of Caouette’s past in the form of photographs and home videos that lends Tarnation its exhaustive immediacy, immediate authenticity and simultaneously extreme subjectivity.
The filmmaker’s expulsion of his past can be searing simply in the footage itself; there are, for example, two uncomfortably long and uncomfortably resonating clips of home video footage that nearly bookend the film, one being an 11-year old Jonathan acting out with complete conviction the part of an abused, pregnant housewife who killed her husband, and much later footage of Jonathan’s mother Renee after a lithium overdose damaged her brain, when we watch Jonathan coolly stand back with the camera and catch a never ending moment of her terrifying dementia on film. Tarnation is liberally structured around this kind of reality-TV distanced authenticity, which Caouette structures with self-written but highly elliptical (not to mention questionable) title cards, disseminating the narrative through the extended montage that makes up most of the film. His montage-brief video clips of himself, photographs tracking his childhood, loving but often deranged home video of his grandparents-is put through every editing and visual trick in the book, and out of iMovie pours a crash course in being an abused child, growing up gay, being a performer, coping with family, coping with abuse, and perhaps most importantly coping with an upbringing of whose memories have been forever distorted.
No one in the film, including Caouette himself, ever really stops to ask questions, and confronted with the rare question people like Caouette’s mother or grandfather almost physically attempt to extricate him or herself from the scrutiny. Moments of overt self-consciousness creep in far too often as well, and many moments beg the question “who exactly is shooting this footage?” as many scenes, especially of Caouette himself, seem dramatically staged. Again, one must be reminded that this is no documentary; the film’s experimental approach to an upbringing and familial history rubs the line away from fact and fiction and the filmmaker’s obvious decision to keep this self-pursuit an expressionistic experience instead of a fact-finding mission is highly evident in Caouette’s deeply disturbing application of formalism. So Tarnation, which opens as if a dream of Caouette’s about his mother’s tragic destruction during her youth, comes off less an examination of a past full of problems and instead a highly distorted but highly illustrative expelled memory, ripped from Caouette’s mind and spit onto the screen in its weird, distanced traumatic immediacy.