Candid, Moving, Incredibly Cheap, but Difficult to Watch.
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 06/07/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
""Tarnation" is an unusual sort of documentary. On the face of it, the film tells the story of 31-year-old filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's lifelong relationship with his Texan family, in particular his difficult but loving bond with his mentally ill mother Renée LeBlanc. But, as "Tarnation" unfolds, it seems the film is a painful attempt to pay tribute to Renée, whose mind was destroyed by hundreds of electroshock treatments, without having much of Renée to get ahold of. "Tarnation" tries to paint a loving portrait of a person who must be reconstructed from the remnants of a shattered personality. It's disturbing and powerful. At the same time, "Tarnation" is a self-portrait of Jonathan Caouette that follows his emotionally tumultuous life from his childhood, through his youth, and finally to a more satisfying life in New York City, his character somehow bound with that of his troubled mother all along.
"Tarnation" is unique in its form as well as its content. The film was famously made for only $218 and edited on Jonathan Caouette's iMac. Caouette uses photographs, old home movies, audio recordings, old television and movie clips, and a few staged reenactments to tell his story. Emulating the style of underground film that its creator has loved since his teens, "Tarnation" makes extensive use of distorted film footage and quick cutting. This doesn't make for easy viewing. The film's grating style will unfortunately limit "Tarnation"'s audience. I found the Hi-8 video manipulated to look like old Super-8 particularly unwatchable. But "Tarnation" is a no-holds-barred self-examination and loving tribute to a woman who could have been. It's fascinating and moving, and sometimes its ugliness suits the subject.
The DVD (Wellspring 2005 release): Bonus features include a U.S. theatrical trailer, a French theatrical trailer, additional scenes, a gallery of 15 movie posters, and an audio commentary. "1983/1984 Rushes" are 5 additional or extended scenes. "Unreleased Tracks" (1 minute) are 2 sequences of clips set to music that were not included in the movie. In the audio commentary, filmmaker Jonathan Caouette talks about his decisions in putting the film together, including editing and music choices. He also elaborates on some of the events in the film, providing some more details of his experiences. Subtitles for the film are available in French."
A beautifully told life that anyone can learn from
A Frankness | New York, New York | 03/20/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Tarnation is one of the most moving pieces of art that I have seen in a very long time. When I viewed it, I think everyone in my immediate vicinity had tears in their eyes, if not all over their faces. While Johnathan Caouette is gay, the movie is about much more than that, in the same way that any straight person's life is about much more than just being straight. It is an intense journey which combines audio and visual stimulation in such a way that makes you realize that it is very real...in that same way that a song from 1995 brings you right back to where you were at that moment. It's like a documentary. Like a journal. It is this realness in the film that makes me realize that the subject is more real than any of us would like to acknowledge. Tarnation claws at a number of topics that everyone faces in their real lives because it is a documentation of a real life. Many people find it cathartic in a very literal sense of the word. It helps relieve anxiety and tension by bringing repressed feelings and fears to consciousness. Watch it and you'll see what I mean. It's well worth it."
F for F***ed-Up? It's All True
Sur-reel Life, All About My Movies | New York, NY | 01/11/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Caouette takes an original approach to the autobiographical documentary, mostly eschewing hearsay and dramatic re-enactment for a more avant-garde, rock video aesthetic. Utilizing home video footage, some of which dates back to when the subject was barely walking age, he assembles an extremely haunting and stylized pastiche of childhood traumas and adolescent angst. Caouette took to the camera at a very young age, his nascent obsession with capturing images on film serving as his primary means of dealing with years of institutional abuse. But as we watch him grow up before our very eyes, and experience his trials and tribulations, which include sexual experimentation, frequent rages, time in a mental hospital, and a mind-altering experiment involving marijuana dipped in formaldehyde, it also becomes apparent that Jonathan has the soul of an artist, and no shortage of talent wielding his trusty Super 8.
At various points, "Tarnation" stares down the director/subject's Houston-based family, particularly his grandparents, whose unwavering belief in their normalcy blinds them to how irrevocably screwed-up they actually are. They could be brain-damaged; Caouette himself doesn't seem to know for sure. Meanwhile, these chapters of unflinching realism are offset by dreamlike sister passages, as if the great David Lynch, whose work Caouette clearly was a fan of (Indeed, the funniest montage in the film documents Jonathan's successful high school musical production of the 1986 classic, "Blue Velvet"), actually dropped in to personally direct his late night TV-viewing hours.
During these somnambulant interludes, which feature close-ups of television screen blizzards, ominous droning barely perceptible beneath the soundtrack, and the bright and shiny juxtaposed with murky darkness, the tone vacillates between calming fantasy and tweaker's nightmare. Like any dream, however, the sleeper's subconscious eventually finds its way into the fabric. If "Tarnation" represents a map of the director's subconscious, what preoccupies him most is his mother, Renee. Growing up, he never got to know the "real" her, the Renee LeBlanc before the depression, before the divorce from Jonathan's father, before those aforementioned grandparents, who were about as ignorant as they were morally self-righteous, had shock treatments administered to her, destroying her personality. The lynchpin of the movie is his enduring relationship with her, rife with wonder and frustration, which represents the impossible-to-sever umbilical connection that exists between all mothers and their children.
Renee's dilapidated, mentally gone existence acts as a mirror to Jonathan, reflecting a future he can envision for himself. Turning out the same world-worn way doesn't seem all that far-fetched, considering how their respective pasts are already very similar (physical and emotional abuse, drugs, burgeoning career based on physical appearances). During a "Big Brother," reality TV-style confession that serves as the denouement of the film, Jonathan admits his fears of ending up like Renee. It's just that, when she was his age, she seemed a lot better than she does now. But looking at things rationally, a similar kind of fate seems highly unlikely for Caouette. If his completed autobiography proves anything, it is his willingness to confront the past, to try and sublimate the pain and overcome the trauma. The mere fact that he attempts this, unlike his mother, who avoids talking about the worst times to the very end, confirms how different they really are. Yes, she is his mother; yes, like her, Jonathan Caouette may consider himself tarnished. But in truth, no one shines brighter than he, and this movie is strong evidence of that.
* * *
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The wave of the future?
David Bonesteel | Fresno, CA United States | 04/11/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Jonathan Caouette has produced a remarkable film that may one day be remembered as a turning point in cinema. Using widely available software, he has produced a compelling documentary about his difficult childhood and his relationship with his mother, Renee, whose mind has been destroyed by shock treatments. He uses the home movies, photographs, and tape recordings with which he has documented his own experiences over the course of his life. Caouette's use of complex montages, color saturation, and many other film techniques is very assured and confident; this film delivers constant visual surprises and effectively communicates the pain and loneliness of the lives it chronicles.
Its only drawback is that Caouette sometimes comes across as self-indulgent and even self-aggrandizing in his victim status. While the majority of the material comes across as brutally honest, the sequences in which an older Jonathan addresses the camera directly were rather jarring and somehow seemed to strike a false note. I don't doubt for a moment any of the emotion he shows in those sequences, but I couldn't help wondering whether it was "heightened" for dramatic purposes. I suppose such questions are bound to arise when one is confronted with such an intense, personal work. At any rate, this is a very worthwhile film./