3.5 out of 53.5 out of 53.5 out of 53.5 out of 5 3.5

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One of the hottest tickets at Sundance ‘04, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation made headlines when it was announced that it was produced for $218.32 and edited entirely on Apple’s free iMovie editing software. Soon, filmmakers Gus Van Sant and James Cameron Mitchell came calling. Using photographs, old home movies, short films, and pop-cultural artifacts from the ‘80s and ‘90s, Caouette splices together the images of his life using split-screen and recoloring effects, creating a kaleidoscopic found-art project that looks to redefine the nature of documentary filmmaking. Caouette plumbs the depths of his mother Renee’s life, revealing a young girl who was forever scarred at an early age when doctors unnecessarily subjected her to electroshock treatment. Years later, when it’s revealed that a drug dealer friend of Renee’s once gave a young Jonathan two joints laced with PCP, you get a sense that the boy never recovered from the intense trip. Like many gay boys, Jonathan is hellbent on survival, and he uses his relationship to his camera to exorcize his demons. He naturally responds to camp—from Wonder Woman and The Stepford Wives to Liquid Sky and the films of David Lynch and Paul Morrissey (not surprisingly, his crazed mother suggests a grown-up Andrea Feldman)—as a means of displacing, understanding, and finally subverting human pain. The highlight of the film may be an 11-year-old Caouette’s remarkable performance in front of the camera as a pregnant and abused junkie (this is a kid who’s watched too much television, but one who’s also seen real-life suffering). A drama queen to the core, Caouette evokes the horrible tragedy of his mother’s life with printed text on the screen that suggests lines from a children’s storybook. As for the soundtrack of hushed, sometimes distorted whispers, movie one-liners, and answering machine messages, it too points to the man’s self-diagnosed “depersonalization disorder.” The copious digital effects used throughout this brilliant video installation are self-conscious, for sure, but Caouette’s psychedelic montage doesn’t exist to pander to short attention spans. Instead, his images evoke the texture of the human mind—how it processes thoughts and sorts through memories, some more painful than others, constantly threatening to erode or, conversely, duplicate themselves until the body can’t take the pressure. Like a person who divulges too much information on the first date, Caouette is not only self-pitying but also uncomfortably frank. But when you realize that Tarnation exists first and foremost for the director’s benefit, you then realize that we should all be so lucky to so bravely confront and sort through the pieces of our lives.

88 min
Jonathan Caouette
Jonathan Caouette
Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, Rosemary Davis, Adolph Davis