A Provincial Drama Queen Makes Good
by Chris Knipp
Watching Jonathan Caouette's autobiographical documentary Tarnation is a distasteful and depressing experience. Its cutting is jerky and quick enough to induce nausea or ADD. There is a Sundance buzz about it because it supposedly cost $218 to make, using old snapshots, home movies, answering machine messages, and a free Apple iMovie editing kit. It's sensational in its self-exposure, but that carries with it many willful, cruel revelations of the miserable life of other members of his Texas family -- of his poor, demented mother, Renee LeBlanc, and her dim, perhaps sadistic, parents, Rosemary and Adolph Davis. Renee, we learn, was subjected to many shock treatments with the approval of Rosemary and Adolph after the one-time child model fell off a roof and suffered hysterical paralysis. Caouette believes Renee was normal before that. If so, she never was again. He was put in foster homes as a young child and abused. He once saw his mother raped.
Caouette was always gay, and interested in music and acting: a drama queen. In high school he put on a most peculiar theatrical production: a musical version of David Lynch's Blue Velvet with actors lip-synching to the songs of Marianne Faithful. He is seen at eleven filming himself dressed as a girl and nervously talking of being abused, a disturbed and unsettling scene. Two years later he's making Super8 slasher films with neighbor kids.
You may say that this film is inchoate and self-indulgent, and you'd be right, but there is no doubt about the horror or the precocity of what it recounts. Elsewhere we see Jonathan in always brief clips – a pretty, pale nancy-boy – trying various personas and looks, disguised as a Goth girl, for instance, to get into punk clubs while underage. At this point he's back with the grandparents and we see them intermittently over a decade or more: she, a repulsive crone who dies after a stroke; he, blandly simpleminded, ever in denial that anything's amiss.
Meanwhile, Caouette revolts by trashing the house and frequently attempting suicide. So we're told: all this is narrated only through silent titles, though there are snatches of recorded dialogue from the many odd, fragmentary sources.
Caouette makes much – arguably too much – use of mirroring, multiple screen images, hyper-saturated color, and other visual editing gimmicks to enliven his minimal material. As one begins to realize that he too was deranged, over the top, the crazy visual style, however annoying, begins to seem appropriate. This is not to imply that the footage often makes much sense. There are no extended family dialogues with any real content as in, for instance, Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, which also makes use of revealing found video documents about a family, but has more coherent ones. Caouette's material is extremely fragmentary -- little more than a few snapshots at first -- and made more so by his never dwelling on any of the stills for more than an instant. It's an accomplishment on his part to have framed some sort of narrative, however skeletal, out of all this. He films himself often but briefly, never speaking in paragraphs. We don't get much detail about any one thing, no time capsules, no clear sense of place, just a whirlwind snapshot tour with big guideposts on the order of “JONATHAN WENT TO NEW YORK.”
After Jonathan does finally go to New York in his late twenties, he forms a relationship with a good-looking boyfriend named David Sanin Paz, not the first such connection, but the one that continues today. The existence of such relationships in his life suggests an element of warmth and stability in Caouette's experience that the story otherwise bypasses. He makes many student films (we're not told where) and gets some acting gigs, including a commercial (also unspecified). But he doesn't escape Renee – his film's obsession, his great subject – or his grim past. Renee comes to visit, and he and she have a reunion with his father, the first in 30 years. Later, after a lithium overdose, Renee's mind becomes more severely damaged.
Here Caouette goes back to Texas for the first time in five years to see her, and finds (and of course films) a trashed house, a mother no longer even superficially coherent. We're forced to observe one of her meaningless, repetitious, giggling monologues which goes on for endless minutes – the hardest to watch and most senseless of many ugly moments in the whole painful recital. Then we're told that he's brought Renee to stay with him in New York . This comes after a scene back in Texas where he accuses his now feeble and aged grandfather of abusing his mother as a child.
The frenetic style of the film contains echoes of Gus Van Sant (notably skyscapes with clouds as markers), the Kenneth Anger of Invocation of My Demon Brother; and the Warhol films, which Caouette grew up with, along with the kids' homemade videos on TV's Zoom, and 1960s teen revolt films like Over the Edge and My Bodyguard. So we learn from an article for FLM magazine, “Twenty-Five Things That I Love,” where he mentions Chris Makepeace: “As a kid I used to pretend My Bodyguard and Meatballs were these wonderful gay love stories with all the dirty parts cut by Jack Valenti…” He also “loves” Sissy Spacek's “bloody-killer-walk” in Carrie, and his desire to evoke the darkest of horror flicks is obvious.
Unlike these mostly highly artificial models, and despite the excessive artifice of its editing, Tarnation is self-manufactured confessional filmmaking at its most baldly ugly and grim. There is much to be endured and little to be enjoyed in it.
Did this have to be? For all the true pain of his past, couldn't Jonathan Caouette have produced something more composed and thoughtful than this? Couldn't he have transmuted all his suffering and confusion into art instead of making this trash-heap documentary? Some materials are too close at hand. There is too much in this film that is incoherent and uninteresting. Can one really speak of Tarnation and Nathaniel Kahn's transcendent portrait, My Architect: A Son's Journey, in the same breath, as some writers are doing?
These questions are futile, however. Whether we like it or not, since it has had the Sundance blessing, and since John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant are producing it, and given the increasing pocket-sized handiness of DV and dedicated editing techniques, this film is going to have a path-breaking impact. One can imagine future journals of less unhappy, less dysfunctional, saner youths rising out of the rubbish pile of what will now be seen as Caouettes's pioneering effort in the field.
©2004 Chris Knipp