Tarnation (15)

Warts 'n' all (and a lot more besides)
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Perhaps the least interesting thing about Jonathan Caouette's extraordinary Tarnation was that it was supposedly made for a total of $218. That doesn't include the real cost of launching the film on its successful festival career, but that figure caught your eye, didn't it? Tarnation wouldn't be the first US independent film to have its profile boosted by tales of micro-economy can-do, but Caouette's film is quite different from such notorious no-budget Sundance wonders as Clerks or The Blair Witch Project. Tarnation can genuinely lay claim to the label "DIY cinema", not merely because Caouette made it himself - as director, writer, primary editor and lead player - but because he made it out of himself. If ever a film was wrenched straight from its maker's psyche, Caouette's autobiographical collage is it.

Perhaps the least interesting thing about Jonathan Caouette's extraordinary Tarnation was that it was supposedly made for a total of $218. That doesn't include the real cost of launching the film on its successful festival career, but that figure caught your eye, didn't it? Tarnation wouldn't be the first US independent film to have its profile boosted by tales of micro-economy can-do, but Caouette's film is quite different from such notorious no-budget Sundance wonders as Clerks or The Blair Witch Project. Tarnation can genuinely lay claim to the label "DIY cinema", not merely because Caouette made it himself - as director, writer, primary editor and lead player - but because he made it out of himself. If ever a film was wrenched straight from its maker's psyche, Caouette's autobiographical collage is it.

Assembled from footage that Texan-born Caouette has been shooting since his early teens - on Super-8, VHS and DV, among other formats - Tarnation recounts the ghastly existence of Caouette and his mother Renee LeBlanc, a former child model. Paralysed after falling off a roof at the age of 12, Renee was submitted to electro-shock treatment, and subsequently spent the next few decades going in and out of psychiatric hospitals. The film uses a rapid montage of film, still photos and captions to give us the back story of Renee and her parents, Adolph and Rosemary Davis. For a while, the family exist in a sweet prelapsarian idyll ("Everything in their lives was/ Bright/ Happy/ And promising," the intertitles tell us). But little Jonathan's life is horrific from the start: Renee is raped in front of him, and he is entrusted to abusive foster parents, before being returned to his grandparents. By Jonathan's teenage years, Renee is a haggard shadow of her former self, and his grandparents have changed from the handsome, hopeful young couple of the Fifties photos into confused, emaciated, decrepit wrecks.

As an adolescent, Caouette survives by developing a perverse taste for role-playing. We see the young Jonathan improvising a little dramatic monologue - part Tennessee Williams, part daytime soap - in which he plays Hilary, a "modern-day housewife" who finally tired of her man's violent abuse and "blew his ass away". In this footage, Caouette is 11.

In his teens, the pretty, androgynous Caouette frequents a gay New Wave club in the guise of a "petite Goth girl"; he has studiously documented himself in just about every teen-tribe regalia ever seen, from longhair surfer to pouting New Romantic. He discovers underground film, directing his own trash oeuvre in what sounds like a John Waters mode, with titles including The Ankle Slasher, Spit and Blood Boys and The Goddam Whore (in which he cheekily recruits Grandma for the lead role). More outré still, at high school Caouette stages a musical version of Blue Velvet, set to Marianne Faithfull songs; even more entertaining than the brief extracts we see is Caouette's earnest teacher presenting the enterprise as wholesome teenage creativity.

Although Caouette's obsessive self-documentation strikes one as taking narcissism to its wildest limits, it becomes quite clear that he has always needed to perform his life as, alternately, melodrama and black comedy, simply to survive. Identifying beyond customary limits with his mother, as fellow victim and survivor, Caouette is essentially assembling a jigsaw version of his self in Tarnation, collating the fragments of his disturbed youth as a gift to Renee, her own being shattered way beyond repair.

More than a jigsaw perhaps, Caouette's editing - originally achieved on Apple's user-friendly iMovie software, and completed in collaboration with professional editor Brian A Kates - suggests something akin to a mirrorball's shimmer, with brightly lit particles of Caouette's self endlessly flashing in front of us. Sometimes Caouette divides the screen into a mosaic of Warholian repeated images or, with free-associative dynamism, bombards us with flashes of his favourite pop-culture fetishes, sampled from TV. Elsewhere, especially in his Super-8 footage, he echoes the lo-fi visual textures of the US experimental tradition, of film-makers such as Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage.

Towards the end, Tarnation settles into a more contemplative present-tense mode, as a relatively relaxed and lucid Renee visits Jonathan and his boyfriend in New York, and tells what may or may not be an accurate story of her abuse by her parents. Jonathan returns to Texas, to the now-wrecked family home, to confront Adolph with Renee's accusations. This sequence documents what is no doubt a necessary therapeutic moment for Caouette, but it's extremely disturbing to watch: the bewildered old man is in no position to defend himself or his late wife in front of Caouette's camera, and indeed in front of the large audience that Tarnation has now found worldwide.

As autobiography, Tarnation is part of the current true-confessions strain in commercial American writing, represented by the likes of Elizabeth Wurtzel, Augusten Burroughs and psychic damage's popular hero Dave Pelzer (the family squalor also has echoes of British photographer Richard Billingham). Caouette's readiness to expose himself and his family is characteristic, too, of the reality-TV era, in which it's a given that everyone's private life can and perhaps should be laid open to public scrutiny. That makes this hugely original and arresting film also rather worrying, in similar ways to Capturing the Friedmans, another extraordinary family-in-crisis documentary in which home movies offered the cathartic thrill of revelation. And, despite his intense love for Renee, and despite the bravery of running the scene in its full harrowing length, you can't help wondering whether Caouette is really doing the right thing by his mother when he shows her in an extremely confused state, giggling through an interminable child-like chant.

You emerge from Tarnation admiring Caouette's bravery and fortitude, disturbed by the extent of his attachment to the camera as mirror, and wondering whether he ever wakes up worried that he's put too much on display. You also wonder what he's left himself to make further films out of. When they talk about "the film of a lifetime", Tarnation must be what they mean.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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