Even these days, when the documentary is a staple of cinematic life, Tarnation is nothing short of unique. The work of Jonathan Caouette, and made for the incredibly low sum of just over $200, it details the director’s somewhat troubled life, focusing on his schizophrenic mother Renee. A mixture of old family Super-8 movies, video diaries, answering machine messages and staged re-enactments, the film was put together by Apple’s i-Movie software – the first commercial release to be edited in this way.
The film begins with the incident of Renee overdosing on lithium, before Caouette tells the tale of himself and his mother – a sad story involving electric shock therapy, rape, drug use, child abuse, and foster care. If the opening ten minutes aren’t enough to assure you that this won’t be exactly a barrel of laughs, then nothing will.
Yet it’s worth sticking with. Caouette is an original voice, and the way that the film is edited means that something new always comes along to keep your attention riveted. Caouette uses the device of text (in a Powerpoint style of unfolding across the screen) instead of a conventional narration – some may find this tiresome but it’s certainly inventive.
Tarnation won’t be a film for everyone. It becomes deeply pretentious now and again (Caouette’s early student films for example, although anyone who staged a musical version of Blue Velvet for his high school has to be admired!), and the material is sometimes disturbing and upsetting – a sequence in which Caouette interviews his grandfather and badgers him about why he agreed Renee should undergo electric shock treatment comes across as exploitative. As Caouette’s confused grandfather begs him to turn his camera off, it’s impossible not to feel like you’re intruding on something that should really be kept private.
Yet overall, Caouette successfully manages to pay tribute to his mother. This is a warts and all picture – one scene, where Caouette’s long estranged father is reunited with his ex-wife and son, shows exactly what a nightmare Renee must be to live with. Her moods swing from affectionate and nostalgic to scathing and abusive at the drop of a hat. Later, an old home movie of Caouette and Renee dancing on a beach shows her other side of carefree, youthful abandon.
Tarnation also possesses a terrific soundtrack, a collection of moody, languid songs by the likes of Low, Rachel Goswell and, in one particularly effective scene, Glen Campbell. The soundtrack helps to make the film an uplifting experience rather than a depressing one, and it’s a real shame that it’s not commercially available on CD at the time of writing.
It’s possible that Tarnation could be pushed into that select group of films that can be admired, rather than enjoyed. Caouette is an extremely talented man (footage here of the 11 year old Caouette improvising the part of an abused Texas housewive is just extraordinary) and with film luminaries such as Gus Van Sant – who acts as Executive Producer here – behind him, it’ll be fascinating to see where he goes from here.