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Jonathan Caouette's Documentary:
What Is in "Tarnation"?
By Charles Leary


FIPRESCI awards young or beginning filmmakers, and Jonathan Caouette, director of the experimental documentary Tarnation (USA, 2004), emerges as an obvious nominee since he started this already acclaimed film when he was 11 years old. Both a raw exposure of the filmmaker's own life and a cathartic device, the film may remind one of the Jim McBride's fictional David Holzman's Diary or Gilles Deleuze's taxonomy of the cinema, where cinema does not just recreate the world, it is the world.

Tarnation is assembled from home movie footage revealing the intense trauma of his life and particularly that of his mother at a young age. His mother Renee, once a Texas child beauty pageant queen, began to suffer at an early age from what can now be diagnosed as acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. She was institutionalized and subjected to shock treatment that at least exacerbated any preexisting condition, and might have actually created it in large measure. Caouette's father absent, his grandparents were inadequate caretakers, and he lived in abusive foster care and was admitted numerous times to psychiatric institutions.

The film was edited on Macintosh's free software, iMovie, described in Apple's promotional literature as "one of those applications that actually changes people's lives." With admitted cynicism, one can't help but wonder if Tarnation , presented as Caouette's life laid bare, becomes part of the Macintosh's advertising machinery in the future.

Most disappointing about the film is that Caouette's skills as a filmmaker and actor actually seem best as a child, and, as the film unfolds — and we see him grow up — both he and the film become more pleadingly melodramatic and unconvincing. The most brilliant sequences in the film are his "testimonials." At age 12 in the mid-1980s he was ahead of his time, before MTV's The Real World and our current age of reality television would adopt the identical format in name as well. These testimonials are filmed in an eerie dimly lit black-and-white, and feature rich characters this child star has invented, complete with makeup and costume. Towards the end of the film, he tries to recreate these images in his twenties, but no longer can.

At the beginning of the film, Caouette's grandfather Adolph tells a fable about why humans have the philtrum, that indentation above our lip and below our nose. God shows heaven to all babies before they are born, and then an angel touches each one above the lip, magically removing all their memories of heaven. Near the end of the film, as his mother's condition worsens, Caouette places his finger above her lip while she sleeps. Presumably this affectionate gesture comes from a hope that his mother can forget the traumas of her life. Yet isn't the angel's initial act a form of punishment, forbidding us from keeping the heavenly memories? Is Caouette's gesture also punishment, or is it a gift? Confronted with much more than "tarnation," with despair in a film, one often exits the theater with the perspective of hope. Is hope then the "return of the repressed," the repressed being that memory of heaven that we are no longer privileged to know? Tarnation very much produces these memories that may be forgotten.

Charles Leary
© FIPRESCI, Viennale, 2004



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