Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” is a force to be reckoned with. In a time when documentary film has come to be defined through the highly subjective works of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Caouette’s self-reflexive, mind-altering video collage offers a breath of fresh, albeit unforgiving air, into the art of moviemaking. Created for $218.32 using Apple’s iMovie, “Tarnation” recounts the life of director/writer/star Jonathan Caouette and his deeply troubled and dysfunctional family. Suffering from depersonalization disorder, a constant dreamlike state, since his early youth, Caouette takes to filming his life, taping himself and his family members as a way to differentiate reality from his mental misconceptions of it. The film itself is a collection of snapshots, video and recordings collected from Caouette’s personal and family archives, strung together to create a startling story of identity, crisis and unconditional love.
At its start, the film looks back to the childhood of Caouette’s beauty queen mother Renee LeBlanc, who undergoes shock therapy in an attempt by her parents to cure her schizophrenia. After two years of treatment, LeBlanc’s original personality has all but vanished. By her late teens she discontinues her medications, flees her parents’ home in Houston, and moves to Chicago. Soon after eloping with then-boyfriend Steve Caouette, LeBlanc becomes pregnant with Jonathan. The marriage is short-lived, leaving Steve unaware he has a son until he gets a phone call from Jonathan 30 years later.
While in the custody of grandparents Adolph and Rosemary, Caouette struggles with personal identity problems from an astoundingly young age. By the time he is11, Caouette finds refuge through videotaping his life. Pieced together, these mini-movies and interviews create a raw and unfiltered picture of a young boy’s struggle with homosexuality, drugs, molestation, suicide and abuse. By the time he is 25, Caouette leaves his mother and grandparents in Texas and ventures to New York City to pursue filmmaking. Five years after his departure, Le Blanc overdoses on lithium and Caouette must leave his boyfriend and return home to care for his severely brain-damaged mother and now-widowed grandfather.
Compiled from over 160 hours of Caouette’s own recorded material, “Tarnation” is visually stunning despite its nearly nonexistent budget. The use of cut and paste editing techniques, kaleidoscopelike effects and a heavy reliance on narrative captions make the movie feel like a succession of diary excerpts. Startling images of a 14-year-old Caouette, who repeatedly transforms himself into highly troubled “characters,” coupled with clips of him injecting drugs and suffering psychotic fits, create what can only be described as a type of cinematic catharsis. The images presented are simultaneously frightening and awing as they blur the lines between creator and spectator, filmmaking and personal therapy.
With a little help from executive producers Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”, “My Own Private Idaho”) and John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and a stunning soundtrack featuring artists ranging from Cocteau Twins and Iron and Wine to Low and The Magnetic Fields, “Tarnation” has received praise both locally at the Los Angeles Film Festival and internationally at Cannes. For many, “Tarnation” has swung the door wide open for up-and-coming filmmakers, redefining what we know of the cinematic process by employing home video and editing equipment to tell a strikingly unforgiving story. Still, for others, Caouette himself is the true marvel, walking away from the making of “Tarnation” as a living testament to personal healing and the unconditional union of family bonds. Caouette’s “film about youth, art, sexuality, mental illness, America and survival” screens Thursday, Feb. 24, in Campbell Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students.