Only the most adventurous filmgoers will want to check out Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's bold, autobiographical, surrealized documentary. Only the most patient will remain open-minded to the far end of the film's 88 minutes. And yet Caouette's account of growing up gay in Texas with his mentally ill mother packs a number of emotional punches. Though his inherently disturbing story hardly needs all the help, Caouette puts forward his gift for shell-shocking overstatement and cathartic compulsion for exhibitionism.
On the way to its limited theatrical run, Tarnation has swept through film festivals and garned acclaim for its impactful style, purportedly achieved with a now-infamous budget of $218.32 and a Mac computer equipped with iMovie editing software. In telling his story and that of his mother Renee, Caouette eschews narration in favor of layers of music, titles, and video effects which include video noise and channel-flipping editing (literally—one sequence touches on Caouette's childhood television influences). Stricken with depersonalization disorder since—at age 12—smoking two PCP-laced joints, Caouette makes his fragmented medium his message.
One powerful section effectively inundates the viewer by overlaying Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" on family recordings, while Caouette flashes, a phrase at a time, titles describing the troubled history of his mother and himself, superimposed over quickly shifting family photos. One of Tarnation's most striking qualities is its depth of audio and video footage from Caouette's youth. Armed with cameras at an early age, Caouette photographed and videotaped his mother, his grandparents, and himself obsessively; the boy had a desperation to express himself and frame his world. Caouette includes a cross-dressed monologue he performed for his camera at age 11; he plays a battered wife.
Tarnation is some kind of triumph of personal expression, which garned support from co-executive producers Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho). It is also maddening at times in Caouette's lack of restraint, as when he includes unidentified reenactments, a lengthy nervous breakdown by his mother, or a stagy, film-ending bathroom confessional. Those who can identify with Jonathan's struggle are most likely to find his film comforting and empowering. Others may indulge in sympathy, but many will simply reject the underground documentary as too outré. Whatever the individual reaction, the film remains defiantly what it is: one of a kind.