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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Tarnation
Wellspring // Unrated // May 17, 2005
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted June 7, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Your life is a movie. Actually, it's not really a movie, just the possible outline for one. Buried inside the bland, the everyday occurrences that resonate with little or no importance, is the drama....the comedy...the horror. From the moment we escape the warmth of the womb to the time when we're planning that everlong dirt nap, the internal celluloid is being processed, the stock exposed and culled into a massive pool of dailies known as memories. Naturally, we barely view the footage, instead filing it away in mental cabinetry containing gaping holes, lining cerebral drawers and desks with all the leftover life. When we eventually approach the pile, we become even more exclusive, sensing the pain and disquiet stored within and avoiding the trauma while picking out the treats. Eventually, we stop searching all together, letting the remembrance of the best bits linger in the air to be quickly inhaled before the stench of the problematic past overwhelms us.

There are times, however, when our mind can deceive us. We believe everything is settled in our inner vault, and as we approach it, we believe all is well and ready for recollection. In the place of organization and pleasantries though, we find fragments - bits and pieces of being, strewn about and disordered. Of course, they didn't become that way by supernatural means. It was more subconscious. Their packing and unpacking over the years has lead to clutter and chaos. And the mess and the memories clearly reflect their owner. They describe him or her as plainly as his or her own words. Cast among the lyrical images, solemn snippets of happiness and canvases covered with greeting card clichés and stereotypes, there is terror. There is sorrow so deep it threatens to drain the soul. There are realities so shocking they divide and disorient. When people proclaim their life is a shambles, or that their day-to-day dealings are a mess, you need to believe them. One look inside their cranial storeroom would indicate that they literally mean what they say.

Such is the case with Jonathan Caouette. After a childhood in foster care cruelty and adolescence divided by questions of his sexuality and sanity, he finally has his mausoleum to misery open and ready for airing out. He's ready to face the terrible memories of this mother's mental illness, something that has plagued him since the day he was born. He has unresolved fond feelings for his goofy Grandmother, a kindly, if cracked old woman who indulged his every creative whim. There is the rock steady Granddad who was always aloof – and maybe for good reason. And then there were the boys – friends and lovers, individuals who peppered his life with joy and melancholy. Beyond the inner, Jonathan kept an exterior record of his reality, a video diary of his existence. He collected every physical memory he could – from photos to phone calls – hoping to make some sense of the untidiness in his head. The result is Tarnation, a quasi-documentary as reminiscence rummage sale. It's time for Jonathan to clear out the cupboards. And the motion picture montage he fabricates is unlike anything you've ever seen before.

The DVD:
When she was 12 years old, little Renee leapt from the roof of her house. Landing wrong, she was temporarily paralyzed. Doctors told her parents, Adolph and Rosemary Davis that there was nothing physically wrong with their daughter. They suggested shock treatments to cure her obvious mental malady. For the next two years, Renee underwent twice weekly electroshock therapy. After it was all over, the once beautiful child was never the same. And as if to prove said circumstance true, over the next three decades, she would spend countless months in mental hospitals, slip in and out of lucidity, and balance fragments of normalcy with out and out bouts of unabashed insanity. She also gave birth to a son – Jonathan.

At age 28, the now openly gay actor is living in Brooklyn with his boyfriend, David. He gets a call in the night – the paramedics have rushed his mother to the hospital. She has suffered a near-lethal overdose of lithium and may or may not survive. The best one can hope for is that the inevitable brain damage will not be too massive. Rushing back to Houston, where he grew up under the guardianship of both the State of Texas and his grandparents, Jonathan begins to face his mother's mental state, sorting through the conflicting stories of abuse, misdiagnosis and desperation. Hoping to pull the truth from the lies, Jonathan begins to create a film about his family. He produces it on his computer and loads it with tons of photos, found mementos and home movie/video footage from his childhood. He entitles it Tarnation.

Though it plays like one, Tarnation is not a movie. It's a life unspooled and then reeled back in – digitized, deconstructed and (occasionally) dramatized. It's a documentary without the typical fact film facets, an individual autobiography with all the objectivity and onus of truth stripped away. It is subjective and objective, nothing but reality while slipping in the occasional little white lie. It's performance art as plied through a CPU - rage, realization and regret channeled through a scanner and a hard drive.

With the use of nothing more than his family photo albums, a collection of home movies and personal videos made throughout his childhood, snippets of conversations and dialogues addressed directly to the camera, we begin to understand how dense and complicated his, and every human life really is. This is not a celebration of one person's triumph over mental illness, or how a son came to cope with his crazy mom. This is primal scream as a pictograph, a cinematic testament to one beings obsessive care and concern for another.

It is almost impossible to put into words what Caouette accomplishes here; as an avant-garde filmmaker, as the son of someone with mental illness, and as a person willing to turn the unflinching lens of the camera onto themselves. Many have argued that, because he recreates scenes, because he uses his own family in a manner that could be considered exploitative and impersonal, that he is guilty of nothing more than blatant egotism. Of course, those would be the sentiments of anyone who hasn't lived through what this savvy survivor has.

Caouette has had to fend for himself, emotionally and physically, from a very early age. He was uprooted from his home at age four, and thrust into a world of crime (his mother was sexually assaulted in front of him) and custodial governmental services. The resulting scars cannot and do not heal, the trauma is too volatile and surface to show concern for abject correctness. Frankly, this filmmaker is allowed to fuck with the facts however he wants or needs to. It's his lamentable lot in life. He had to live it. So how he chooses to relive it is his own business.

Frankly, the falsification argument stems from a kind of sick, twisted jealously. If Tarnation were just average, if it was a sobering experience with some nice things to say about loving those who's mental troubles spill out and over into your own life, it wouldn't inspire such ire. Instead, people would ponder its realities, scold its shortcomings, and be done with it. But it is because Tarnation is such a terrific, terrifying experience, because it lets us in on the ground level of something so foreign and yet so familiar to our own, screwed up lives, that emotions run high – and thus the fervent critiques.

Besides, who really cares how this point is made, as long as it gets across. Renee's human horror film, complete with interpersonal thrills and psychological chills is the stuff of epics. That Jonathan followed a near identical path, only saved by his own solid belief in himself makes the scope even more amazing. By the time we are done watching what has transpired over the last three decades, we're convinced that no one could endure such an onslaught. And yet we see the faces – fresh, but still fallible trying to look into the loving light of the future. Indeed, as the movie ends, it appears that the shadows of shame and betrayal are lifting. In their place? Something sort of resembling peace.

Tarnation takes its place alongside other classic cinematic celebrations of mental restriction in juxtaposition to lofty life goals. The documentary genre itself has a long lineage of such titles, from the Oscar winning Best Boy, to the obscure indie offering Jefftowne. But where Tarnation treads new ground is in the multimedia message relied on and drawn from to get the point across. Caouette did indeed craft this entire film on his boyfriend's home computer. He did draw on videotapes that he himself made when he was a pre-teen (he would borrow the camera from friends and use it to shoot character monologues of his own creation and performance). And he also found the perfect musical accompaniment to every moment, making sure that the intensely personal nature of song melded effortless into his storyline.

Together, they create something truly unique – heartbreaking and spirit lifting in simultaneous technological synchronicity. The notion that elements captured via ancient scientific methods (photographs, 8mm footage, the camcorder) would somehow marry into the 21st century of desktop filmmaking finally fulfills the promise that many thought would occur once digital began to overwhelm the dinosaurs. But Caouette's movie is so much more than just a successful selling point for Apple. It's a revelation in the art of the documentary, a chance to fuse Michael Moore's self-made dramatics with real life tragedy and truth to create a larger, more transcendent reality. Indeed, what Caouette does is nothing short of revolutionary, since he combines endeavors – both artistic and human – to craft imagery so spellbinding that it leaves you breathless.

Of course, he and his family are the stars here, and anyone concerned that this is one big Jonathan Caouette lovefest will soon have such thoughts erased. Mother Renee and grandparents Adolph and Rosemary are on screen in almost equal amounts to our narrator/about to progress pilgrim. Each one carries their own unique identity throughout the narrative. Rosemary is the card, the gap-toothed old bitty who loves to play in her grandson's own private universe. Adolph places his optimistic faith in God, thinking it will cure whatever ails everyone in the house. Oddly enough, when rumors start to circulate about his possible abusive side, he does nothing to defuse the condemnation. He merely dismisses it, like he's done every other problem that has pestered him over the decades.

In Renee, we have the most complicated of clichés – the woman interrupted, under the influence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and constantly trampling through her own tragic, rancid rose garden. The electroshock treatments may have robbed her of her personality (she does come across as an eager, but empty, zombie) but they have not stolen her humanity. She loves her son dearly and does everything she can to keep that important maternal connection alive and kicking. In the end, we feel we've experienced her torment and tribulations, just not in the way one would imagine. Since we can't possible know how Renee felt as thousands of volts surged through her brain, we can also witness her son's testament to its awful aftermath. What we experience is vicarious – indirect, but deeply affecting all the same.

Part of that portrayal is thanks to Jonathan himself. In an early scene, a 9 year old child, uncomfortable with the way he looks and acts, dresses in near drag and takes the camcorder for a soliloquy spin. He channels an abusive husband-killing woman play-acting and describing life under the thumb of this tyrant (the young Caouette created this little mini psychodramas and dramatizations himself). Watching the boy completely loose himself in the role – hands a bunch of nervous, telling tics...face fractured in a myriad of conflicting emotions – argues for Caouette as a brilliant prodigy. That he eventually got lost in his growing sexual identity, the problems with his grandparents (they hospitalized him as well after an incident with PCP laced pot) and the social disconnect he was feeling is no surprise. That his gift was there from such a tender age definitely is.

But Caouette is more than just a Method actor with lots of previous practice putting on the personas. He is an open book of still weeping wounds, a young man finally settling and regaining his senses after decades tossed in a whirlwind of diagnosis and mental disease. He found most of his strength in lovers – from his high school sweetheart to his current rock of a Romeo – proving how much affection and need there was inside this young man. It's this intense emotion that carries over into the film. Indeed, Tarnation may just be Caouette's handmade love letter to his distant and - YES, dysfunctional - family. It's indeed a shout out to the father who abandoned him (there is a minor reconnection later). It's a final fond farewell to a grandmother who was always there, and a nod of somewhat confused appreciation to a granddad that, more or less, kept to himself.

Yet if it is anything, Tarnation is a son's symbolic sigh of relief for his broken and bruised mother. Renee is really nothing short of human vitality at its most resilient. While she is such a shadow of her former self that, sometimes, the camera barely catches her, she is still the muse for her son's mantras, the reason he fights so hard for life to give in and play fair. Conceding her condition and deciding to invade it, not avoid it, Caouette has made one of the great personal pleas for forgiveness ever attempted. Tarnation is out to dispel myths and refashion new legacies. It wants to scatter the sense of what mental illness is, and how it was treated years ago, into a galvanizing statement of hope and healing. It's one of the best films of its type ever, even as it avoids categorization. It's John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album interpreted in film. It's that one secret, stored away scrapbook in the farthest corner of the attic, awakened and rapacious. It's hard to handle and it's ecstasy as experimental entertainment. Without a doubt, Jonathan Caouette has created one of the great films of the year. It should not be missed.

The Video:
Presented by Wellspring in a devastatingly imaginative 1.33:1 full screen stunner, Tarnation looks every bit the mixed medium, montage manic movie it is. The colors are strong, sometimes saturated on purpose. The computer was also employed to artificially age and re-tint certain sequences. Graphics combine with post-production gizmos (like spilt screen and various weird wipes) to add emphasis and underscore themes. The result is resplendent, a visual tone poem to every emotion the "characters" are feeling. It is a realistic look at one family's life in a way both authentic and artistic. Though some may quibble over the old Beta and Super-8 segments, or wonder why the occasional flaws like bleeding or flaring appear. But it is all part of this filmmakers fantastic plan. Frankly Tarnation wouldn't be the same without the mood and memory recalling properties of the problematic bits.

The Audio:
Again, there are not enough kudos in the hall of praise to point out how amazing the aural elements of this film are. Caouette picks ABSOLUTELY PERFECT music to accompany his scenes, orchestrating them in ways that recall Scorsese, or even better, Tarantino. Never offering a single miscue, and flawlessly enhancing both the visual and emotional nature of what we are witnessing, Tarnation's Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix is magnificent. Indeed, the filmmaker paints with sounds here as much as with picture, using overlapping dialogue, aural diary entries, and even phone answering machine tapes to translate his measured moods and tenures. As both a visual and auditory experience, this movie is simply amazing.

The Extras:
The trip Tarnation took from life, to hard drive, to Sundance is both mind-blowing and near mystical. We learn most of the story in the DVD's in-depth bonus features - primarily, in Caouette's sparse but very specific audio commentary. It is here where we discover that Tarnation was originally meant as a docudrama, with fictionalized footage to be intermixed with the real life documentary material to create a kind of real fiction. But after a three hour version of the film more or less failed to fulfill his vision, Jonathan scraped the bogus sequences and focused on telling his own, true story.

Sadly we are not privy to that cut of Tarnation, nor does Caouette provide much information about what was in said overstuffed project. What revelations we do get are quite shocking. We do hear about a son (and the woman who gave birth) but, again, no real details as to the how and why of his creation. Caouette does name-check directorial influences, musical loves and losses (a couple of tracks could not be cleared for use in the film) and why there will be another movie – either an expanded DVD or sequel proper. Listening to him relive certain sequences, while avoiding others we'd hope he'd talk about, can make this alternate narrative a tad trying. But in the end, we discover what drove this man to make such a film, and how those with connections in the industry decided that it could not go unnoticed.

Also hard to forget are those juvenile monologues with their pain and potential on full, flickering display. Caouette provides the video pieces for some of those performances as must-see extras. We also get two beautiful instrumentals, complete with more Caouette videography, along with a poster and trailer gallery. While a Making-Of would have been nice (complete with some IMac material and how-to footage), this is still a fine collection of added content, especially for a film as opaque and filled with dimensions as this one.

Final Thoughts:
With no real conclusion, no sense of complete closure, and a full understanding that this story is not really ending, but just rebooting and starting all over again, it becomes difficult to decide what message Caouette really wants to leave in the viewers mind. But once you realize that - beyond a Yosemite Sam's cartoon curse word - "Tarnation" means "the act of damning, or the condition of being damned", the moniker and the missive makes perfect sense. Caouette is out to show how the smallest life events leave the biggest impressions, how they condemn the human experiencing them to an existence lost, to a reputation tainted and twisted. The road back from this Hell is paved with all manner of intentions – bad, good, ugly and indifferent.

And in a lot of ways, so is life. We believe in the power of positive thinking, long for our faith to save our soul, and hope that lady luck decides to smile on, and not against us. We are always looking for the silver lined cloud, the rainbow peaking out of the downpour. Too bad those things almost only happen in the movies. And our lives are not really movies. No, it's just the possible outline for one. Fill in the blanks, and you could have something special. Fill in the blanks, and you'd have a possible masterpiece. Fill in the blanks, and you'll have Tarnation. This is life as a movie – and it's a classic to boot.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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