Directed by Jonathan Caouette — 2004, US — 88 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 (aspect ratio varies depending on the source material and stylistic decisions) — Documentary
IN BRIEF, innovative documentary chronicling the lives of filmmaker Jonathan Caouette and his troubled family over twenty year.
Few people will ever have a year like Jonathan Caouette’s 2004.
It began with him an underemployed 31-year-old New York actor, day-jobbing as a doorman at a Fifth Avenue jewelry store, and ended with him acclaimed internationally as a visionary new filmmaker who had all but reinvented the documentary. Tarnation, his first film – which he wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited, was an official selection at top festivals around the world: Cannes, Sundance, New York, Chicago, Toronto, London, and many more; it was on every major list of the 10 Best Films of 2004: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and Slate, to name just a few; and it won a slew of international awards, including the National Society of Film Critics’. Tarnation is also loved by audiences around the world, although it tells the very specific story of a young gay man in suburban Texas overcoming a family legacy of mental illness and abuse. Tarnation is riveting as both a raw personal testament and a work of sheer cinematic virtuosity. Wellspring’s DVD is superb, with a revealing optional commentary track by Caouette and additional special features, including a sample of the unedited footage used in the film.
Tarnation begins in March 2002 as Caouette learns that his mentally-ill mother, Renee LeBlanc, has overdosed on her lithium treatment and is in a coma. He leaves his New York home, shared with his life partner David Sanin Paz, to return to Texas to support her recovery. While watching over Renee, and demanding that she receive the best medical care, he slips back into both his mother’s and his own life through a kaleidoscopic array of snapshots, home movies, answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, snippets of ’80s pop culture and dramatic reenactments. (Caouette is a self-confessed “pack rat,” who had over 160 hours of personal material to draw on, not to mention hundreds of movies and CDs.) Through twenty years worth of clips, brilliantly and revealingly edited, we watch Caouette grow up. We see him escape from family trauma even as he creates his own unique identity, through theater (including footage of a high school musical he wrote based on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet!), old horror flicks, pop music, the local gay scene, and more. Tarnation is intensely personal yet universal in its appeal, with its all-too-real tale of a family torn apart by dysfunction but ultimately reunited through the healing power of understanding and love.
This visceral picture can hardly be described in words, both because it comes from such a deeply personal and intuitive place and because its use of image and sound is purely, at times stunningly, cinematic. I urge you to experience Tarnation for yourself; there is nothing else quite like it. I can only offer some observations about why I believe it is so powerful on so many levels.
First, let’s take a quick look behind the scenes, where Tarnation is already the stuff of filmmaking legend – except that this legend is true. Caouette originally made it for a little over $200 on his Apple Mactinosh, editing the picture, effects and sound with the iMovie software bundled free with the computer. Of course, for its theatrical release it was spiffed up, transferred to 35mm, and the legal rights cleared for the dozens of songs and movie clips it incorporates. Caouette also cut in half the original three-hour version, which caught the attention of executive producers Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig & The Angry Inch), who are themselves two extraordinary, and openly gay, contemporary filmmakers.
Basically, I believe that Tarnation is so powerful because Caouette manages to join together the personal and the aesthetic, with astonishing frankness and originality. As he noted in an interview, “I conceived the film as a new way of looking at documentary, as though it were imitating my thought process, giving the audience the experience of seeing what it was like to be inside my head.” I think he succeeds profoundly in achieving those goals, and more.
The film has such universal appeal because it explores, with unflinching honesty, such basic themes as forging a personal identity, understanding the dynamics of family, and learning how to heal through the love of others. The film is enormously emotional but never so in a cheap or manipulative way; it’s filled with Caouette’s genuine, at times manic, desire to understand how he and his family fell apart. The intensity of Caouette’s probing into his family’s and his own past – to understand how things got to their current disintegrated state, so that they can be made right – also explains why this film is not another vanity project by a struggling actor. This film is simultaneously about the painful but ennobling experience of Caouette and his mother gradually putting their shattered lives back together. As Caouette notes, with moving candor on his commentary track, his partner “David had to heal me so that I could heal my mother.”
Although this is a film about a family torn apart, with more genuine pain than almost any fiction film, significantly it is a work of catharsis and not hand-wringing victimization. Caouette looks at his family’s whole situation, across three generations. And he reveals his mother, his grandparents – Rosemary and Adolph Davis – who raised him, and himself with remarkable candor. They each emerge as distinct individuals, by turns funny, rude, contradictory and very real. Caouette is uncanny in his ability to condense time radically and still reveal the full humanity of his family, all in under 90 minutes. In a film composed mostly of existing footage, he consistently manages to select exactly the right, the most suggestive and telling, shots. You can see his editorial genius by comparing the samples of uncut shots, included in the DVD’s Special Features, with the final film.
Yet with all of this meticulous craftsmanship, the film everywhere pulses with life – in part because Caouette knows when to trust his intuition. As he says in his commentary, “The movie literally made itself.” His instincts, coupled with his growing self-understanding and extraordinary imagination, allowed him to make connections which are sometimes not at all obvious (childhood in suburban Texas, horror movies, musicals, being a gay kid) but which, together, form patterns which, for all of their surface disparateness, feel right. As the film unfolds, we come to understand, whether intellectually or intuitively, the depth of Caouette’s insight.
Why is it so easy to follow a film which often employs such avant-garde visual techniques as multiple layers of images and sometimes 200 or more flash cuts in a single minute? Besides the emotionally-involving people and situations, Caouette has masterfully structured a clear, straightforward narrative to support his film: we always know where we are. After a brief present-day prologue, he chronologically tells first the story of his mother – from her birth to her mental disintegration, luckless marriage, and disappearance – and then his own story, from childhood to the present. In the opening moments of the film, Caouette even gives us a “literal” way of looking at his stylistic experiments. He wakes up, in the arms of his partner, saying that “I’ve been dreaming about my mother.” And it’s certainly possible to read the at times brazenly associative nature of the film’s development (wildly different images colliding in rapid succession, intercut with ‘normal’ scenes) as a (literal) dream film. In fact, Caouette has created a film which depicts the stuff of dreams better than all but a handful of other directors (such as Buñuel, Bergman, and Lynch).
Another important anchor for the audience is Caouette’s use of intertitles. His brief declarative sentences are, at times, shattering in their contrast between the simplicity of carefully-chosen words and the action being described. Here is how he describes the pivotal event which results in Renee undergoing (it turns out unnecessary) shock therapy, which ultimately is responsible for her mental collapse. Each brief text, between the slash marks (/), is for a separate shot:
Around the time Renee was 12 years old / Everything in her life began to become sad / Renee was playing on the roof of her home / Renee fell / She landed on her feet without bending her knees / Renee became paralyzed / For about 6 months / Rosemary and Adolph began to think / That the paralysis was all in her head / A neighbor friend of the family / Advised Rosemary and Adolph / To give Renee shock treatments / Twice a week / For 2 years…
Beyond clarifying events, I think Caouette’s use of language approaches the beauty and density of fine free verse poetry. Perhaps the other most powerful, yet achingly simple, narration in the film comes when Caouette tells us, matter of factly, how as a teenager he smoked two joints which, unknown to him, had been laced with PCP (his one and only experience with drugs, he notes). He says that this caused his depersonalization disorder, whose symptoms made him feel as though he were “living in a dream:” again, note the connection between the psychological state and the form of the film. (In the commentary, he notes that he has not suffered from this disorder for several years.)
Also helping to tie the film together is the haunting original score by John Califra and Max Avery Lichtenstein. It unifies the film, whose densely layered soundtrack includes snippets of dozens of songs, from country & western to Broadway to pop, rock, punk, and techno.
On an almost subliminal level, Caouette visually provides structural coherence through his use of select motifs. For instance, there are several images of electricity, which remind us of the catastrophic shock treatments to which his mother was subjected. He also employs an angel motif, which recurs about a half-dozen times. There is an actress in his high school Blue Velvet musical, various angel dolls, David making a snow angel in New York and, most memorably, Adolph’s monologue about the angel who visits each of us just before our births (which we’ll look at below).
Caouette’s elliptical style, both in the texts and in their juxtaposition with his kaleidoscopic swirl of images and music, is also involving. We in the audience have to fill in rapidly the connections between words, images, and sounds. But Caouette is such a gifted filmmaker that he always provides exactly enough material to let us to make those imaginative, and emotional, leaps. That, coupled with the clear narrative form – even with all of the visual pyrotechnics – always lets us know where we are. Poignantly, our own ‘groundedness’ is in painful contrast to the people we see onscreen, who are demonstrably lost.
Stylistically, the film is stunning, not only for its special effects (homemade but virtuosic) but for how the images embody Caouette’s larger vision, which often employs seeming contradictions. The frequent, but always varied, use of split screens, multiplied images (sometimes with hundreds of iterations in a single shot), and dissolves parallel the dis–integrated world views of, respectively, Caouette and his mother, even as the shots are strikingly beautiful in their own right. The film also packs a kinetic wallop, with its propulsive editorial rhythms: like all aspects of the film, it embodies Caouette’s recreation of how he felt at a given point in his life, even as it creates a visually, aurally and emotionally rich cinematic experience.
Further, Caouette uses style – narrative, visual, and sound – not only to express his understanding of his life but, more importantly, to challenge it by pointing up its contradictions. The more you watch this film, the more paradoxes it reveals on every level – yet ultimately it seems to achieve a higher, and unique, form of integration. To take just one example, look at the juxtaposition of musicals and horror movies which recurs throughout the film. (Only a handful of directors have excelled at both genres, including James Whale: Frankenstein and Show Boat; Rouben Mamoulian: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the original Broadway productions of Porgy & Bess, Oklahoma!, and Carousel; and Robert Wise: The Haunting and West Side Story and The Sound of Music.) Superficially, the two forms would seem to have nothing in common, Sweeney Todd notwithstanding. Yet on a deeper level – and this may be what have appealed to young Caouette, and millions of other people (including myself) – both genres are about the extreme accentuation of emotion.
Musicals allow great soaring bursts of feeling, in song and dance, but it is all encased within a rigid order: song form, plot stereotypes, and frequently stylized set and costume design. For Caouette as a young gay viewer, it may have felt especially liberating to see emotion given such overt expression, as people freely burst into song. The flip side of this coin is the horror picture, in which situations worse than your worst nightmares play out, yet again the explosive emotion – the violence – is present as it can (almost) never be in life, yet it is also contained within the genre’s rigidly conventional limits. Caouette quotes from several ‘devil movies,’ from the mordant power of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (Caouette in his commentary says his beloved grandmother reminds him of a Texan Ruth Gordon!) to the silly shlock of The Devil’s Rain (watch Ernest Borgnine’s face melt off). Seen more broadly, some horror-genre films, like James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, continue to have enormous resonance for gay, and of course other, audiences, because of their subversive, and radically humane, redefinition of identity, family, society, and even love.)
In broad terms, you can see how Caouette works both the horror film and the musical (among other influences) throughout Tarnation, from the many tense, cramped and downright creepy images (this is a film about dual mental illnesses, both Renee’s and Caouette’s), not to mention the clips from his own teenage slasher films, to the pervasive influence of music, including one of the most densely eclectic soundtracks this side of Martin Scorsese and several scenes of Caouette himself singing, from various points in his life. The two genres come together through 15-year-old Caouette’s stage musical version of Blue Velvet at Houston’s Gloversville High School, in which the teenage cast lip-synched to Marianne Faithfull’s songs while recreating David Lynch’s twisted vision on stage.
Caouette also includes several straight-on scenes of enormous emotional power. Look at 11-year-old Caouette’s monologue, captured in a single long take, as an abused woman character he created – Hillary Chapman Laura Lou Guerreo – done in drag. (As he tells us in the commentary, he borrowed his grandmother’s house coat and mother’s bandana; he’d already been bleaching his hair for a year.) There is something hideously right, considering his emotional state at the time, about this tortured boy – still a few years away from coming out to himself (in the background, you can hear his grandmother saying, “My God, what kind of freak grandson do we have!”) – adopting such a benighted persona. One reason this character is so moving is because beneath the camp we sense the deep emotional truth bubbling up and spilling over. “This is a [court] testimony, isn’t it? [My husband] Jimmy says when I wear too much make-up it makes me look like a whore. Sorry…. My testimony is about me and my little baby Caroline… What a year, 1969… a housewife like me… Jimmy used to beat me when he’d come home drunk at night… didn’t know I was pregnant… he’d tie me up. Smokin’ that dope, it got to him… Ohhh… I’m sorry… Ohhh… I can’t stop [crying]. This is really hard for me….” But continue Caouette/Hillary (et al.) does. (The full, unedited footage of this monologue is included in the Special Features section, 1963/1964 Rushes.) How does a young boy come up with such a creation? The mystery is at partially solved by the commentary track, in which Caouette specifies three sources: his mother’s failed marriage to an abusive husband, PBS’s then-recent telecast of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf starring Alfre Woodard, and – incredibly – a two-part episode of the TV series The Bionic Woman (!). Those references are intriguing, but of course no strong emotional experience – as this clearly was, despite Caouette’s youth – can be reduced to so few factors.
The scene feels right in the fuller context of the film, where it shows us viscerally what he was feeling at that time. He probably could not articulate at age 11 what his “housewife” character with a baby meant to him, but twenty years later Caouette can incorporate it as a revealing strand in the full film. In fact, Caouette’s self-consciousness seems not only his saving grace as a filmmaker but as a human being too. Throughout the film, as the main emotional (and thematic line), we see his growing awareness, of himself, his mother, and wider social forces (for instance, the “scientists” who prescribed Renee’s ruinous shock treatments, it turned out years later, were simply wrong, as a second opinion would have shown).
Caouette’s self-awareness can also be related to his identity as a gay man – which brings me to my only problems with the film. I wish he had at least touched on any problems he might have had coming out in a conservative Texas suburb. Also, his life partner David is as important as anyone in the film – it’s through David’s love, Caouette tells us, that he was at last able to heal himself, which only then let him reach out to his mother – but he remains a shadowy figure, much more so than Renee, Rosemary or Adolph. (In his commentary, Caouette does mention that his next film may be about how he created his “intentional,” as distinct from his biological, family, which would focus on his and David’s relationship.) And the total unselfconsciousness surrounding gay issues is refreshing. Within the first moments we see Caouette being intimate with David: no explanation, just two people who obviously love each other and who happen to both be of the same sex.
Yet Tarnation can also be viewed, from one perspective, as a pivotal gay film, not only for that matter-of-factness, but because it strikes a knowing balance between sassiness and genuine sentiment – and that seems one hallmark of contemporary queer cinema. And as Caouette mentions, both in the film itself and his commentary, he consciously, and expressively, uses the distinctive techniques of many important gay filmmakers (Anger, Warhol, Morrissey, Waters, Jarman, Van Sant; I’d add Fassbinder, especially in a film of radical empathy like In a Year With 13 Moons). Although it’s risky to generalize too much about the specific nature of GLBT film, one key element is self-consciousness (as seen in areas as disparate as redefining “the Monster” – the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, James Whale’s sympathetic Frankenstein – to the trenchant excesses of camp). In unsupporitve environments, gay people – including when they are young and not yet out – have to be constantly vigilant, self-conscious, that they don’t accidentally reveal who they are. Although Caouette doesn’t show us the consequences of such slips, we all know what they are.
To this self-awareness, Caouette juxtaposes, throughout the film, a device which seemed almost cruel: an uncomprehending young woman, with a thick Southern accent, droning the bromidic poem “Desiderata” (“Go placidly amid the noise and haste… You are a child of the universe…”). When I learned from the commentary that the reciter was a young Renee, that only complicated my response. Here is a person saying words about nothing less than cosmic mysteries (as you may know, “Desiderata” was not “Found in Old St. Paul’s Church in 1692,” as it was once fraudulently claimed, but rather it was a pastiche written in 1927 by a Max Ehrmann), which stands in marked contrast to the genuine probing which Caouette is doing into his own and his family’s life, through brilliantly imaginative filmmaking. Why include this pitiful, tone-deaf recitation of cliched mysticism? To contrast with his own growing understanding?
This brings me to yet another aspect of the film which I find strangely compelling, namely, that each of us watching the film has to come to terms with a real person’s actual life. Yes, a few scenes were “re-enacted” – the car journey to Texas was actually shot in Austria, when Caouette was touring in The Rocky Horror Show (talk about horror and musicals); and the several shots of Caouette as a young child are played by his real-life son, Joshua – but that doesn’t detract from their emotional veracity. But criticizing, say, Renee’s dishwater-dull reading of “Desiderata” is also taking pot shots at a real woman, although then a young girl (albeit a beauty queen who was acting in local TV commericals), whom I have come to know and empathize with through this film. This feels quite different from criticizing an artistic work, which is what the creator expects. And Renee may have critiqued her own performance: she deposited her “Desiderata” tape, made in 1975, behind the familiy dryer, never guessing that one day her son would unearth it and use it in a landmark documentary.
One of Caouette’s great strengths is how he forces us to question his own mythmaking, even beyond the film’s simultaneous deconstruction and brilliantly patched-together recreation of his life. Perhaps the most striking metaphor in the film is Adolph’s belief in an angel who, just before our birth, removes our memories of heaven; Adolph says that that explains why we have an indentation between our lip and nose. Caouette was so struck by his grandfather’s unprompted monologue, which he just happened to capture on film one evening, that he ends Tarnation by reaching out his own finger to touch that spot on his sleeping mother. Tender, poignant, unforgettable… and yet, like all myths, it’s not fully satisfying.
Although Caouette never glosses this pivotal image, even though as mentioned above it inspired him to craft a series of angel motifs which help structure the entire film, my curiosity was piqued. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find out that there is an alternative scientific explanation for the facial feature called the philtrum (mystifyingly derived from the Greek philtron, “love potion”). As the MEDLINEplus Medical Encyclopedia puts it, “The philtrum is the midline groove in the upper lip that runs from the top of the lip to the nose. The way the philtrum appears is determined genetically. In some syndromes this gro[o]ve is shortened” – as in foetal alcohol syndrome, I learned elsewhere. So don’t the foetuses of alcoholic mothers receive a memory-erasing visit from the angel? Did they never receive, or do they still have locked up inside their heads, that vision of heaven? Such reality-based questions may be the bane of myth, but they are the very heart and soul of Caouette’s overpowering film.
Not only is Tarnation important in its own right – as an extraordinarily original documentary, and as a reflection of life and art, both gay and universal – it also touches lives in a way few works ever attempt. It suggests the way for other individuals to examine and express their own lives, both internally and through artistic expression: it shows how you, yes you!, can use a cheap camera, free software, and an immense amount of creativity, honesty, and drive to make your own personal version of this film.
The tagline for this film is uncannily on target: “Your greatest creation is the life you lead.”
Ultimately, this is even more than a film; it is a testament to our common humanity, a triumphant work which suggests how each of us can overcome our personal, and even family, pain and create a good, full, loving life. The path is hard and fraught with traps, as we see reflected both in the narrative and the brilliantly disorienting style, but it can be done.
With Tarnation, the proof is right before our eyes.
- Written, Directed & Photographed by Jonathan Caouette
- Produced by Stephen Winter
- Executive Producers: Gus Van Sant & John Cameron Mitchell
- Edited by Caouette & Brian A. Kates
- Original Music by John Califra & Max Avery Lichtenstein
- Renee LeBlanc
- Jonathan Caouette
- Adolph Davis
- Rosemary Davis
- David Sanin Paz
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Wellspring‘s DVD release of Tarnation offers excellent image and sound. The special features, detailed below, are also of exceptional interest, especially Caouette’s often revealing – and always entertaining – full-length commentary track.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio variable (as intended)
Reviewed June 20, 2005 / Revised October 27, 2020