2003Director: Jonathan Caouette
Cast: Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc
t the tender age of 11, Tarnation subject and director Jonathan Caouette began filming his life as well as snippets of his dramatic efforts. Using a wide array of home-movie equipment, answering machine tapes, and diary recordings Caouette amassed 160 hours worth of recordings over the following two decades. From these documents, he chiseled an 88-minute film.
The wealth of materials presented to Caouette must have lent itself to various possible storylines, but the director chose an autobiographical route focusing on his frighteningly troubled family. Tarnation opens with a (most likely staged) scene in which a 31-year-old Jonathan receives a phone call from his native Houston, TX, delivering news that his mother, Renee LeBlanc, had suffered a lithium overdose. His face contorts into the shape of profound human sadness, the state where one is overwhelmed but fights not to shriek in hopes that the next sentence will warrant optimism.
This is the face of drug addiction.
That expression becomes transfixed on the faces of audience members as the film, through music, still photographs, and title cards, relates Caouette’s family history. Renee, it seems, was a perfectly normal child until an accident rendered her paralyzed for a period of six months. As time wore on, Renee’s parents began to suspect her condition was purely mental, and on the recommendation of a neighbor, submitted their daughter to shock therapy for a period of two years. Those treatments, drug use during the height of the free love era, and further hospitalization after other traumatic events proved too much for Renee to overcome. Her mental state deteriorated gradually until the lithium episode erased any vestiges of her original self.
The film then moves towards Jonathan’s childhood and adolescence, documented more interestingly by his own hand. Caouette successfully relates the results of being born to an unfit mother, and reveals that his own life has been filled with harrowing events and psychological instability. In fact, until Jonathan grows old enough to escape his hometown for New York and the arms of his lovingly represented boyfriend, Tarnation is about as fun to watch as an autopsy. However, the disturbing imagery provokes a towering emotional response that far surpasses mere sympathy.
When she wakes up, she's going to get the surprise of a lifetime...
Caouette closes the film with his only direct message to the audience. His words, when not forced in attempted profundity (a one-line misstep), expose his ambivalence towards his mother, whom he loves unconditionally but whose personality he is deathly afraid of contracting. Caouette’s sentiments are, no doubt, a much more extreme version of the average viewer’s.
Tarnation, though flawed by Caouette’s inability to craft a cohesive narrative of his life, is an interesting film with a great soundtrack and amazing visceral impact. If nothing else, it can be called some of the most original work to hit theaters this year.
By: Kevin Worrall
Published on: 2004-11-19