Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother -- a mixture of snapshots, Super-8, answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, and more -- culled from 19 years of his life.
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Part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, and part acid trip. A psychedelic whirlwind of snapshots, Super-8 home movies, old answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, snippets of '80s pop culture, and dramatic reenactments to create an epic portrait of an American family travesty. The story begins in 2003 when Jonathan learns that his schizophrenic mother, Renee, has overdosed on her lithium medication. He is catapulted back into his real and horrifying family legacy of rape, abandonment, promiscuity, drug addiction, child abuse, and psychosis. As he grows up on camera, he finds the escapist balm of musical theater and B horror flicks and reconnects to life through a queer chosen family. Then a look into the future shows Jonathan as he confronts the symbiotic and almost unbearable love he shares with his beautiful and tragically damaged mother. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Using a mixture of photographs, Super-8 footage, short films, answering machine messages and video diaries, filmmaker Jonathan Capouette documents the struggle he had growing up with his schizophrenic mother, and seeks to find out if more could have been done to protect her.
Jonathan Capouette is never going to be regarded as a successful filmmaker he was the brainchild behind 'Tarnation', which is essentially a documentary about his own life, and has done very little since. But if this movie is his only legacy, then it's not the worst legacy in the world because 'Tarnation' is actually quite a good film.
But let me clarify: this is only a good film in parts. In fact, when it's good, it's very good; and when it's bad, it's pretty awful. The documentary is a very personal one, and I always struggle to hate something which is made with such intimacy and self-deprecation. The best scenes in the movie are the home footage clips of Jonathan with his mother, Renee. We see her both when she's entirely lucid and aware of herself, and at her lowest, struggling to function properly. It is heartbreaking to see this change as the documentary progresses, and the fact that the people who could have helped her are also present in these clips makes it all the more powerful.
Where the movie really falls flat is when we see Caouette 'expressing' himself, either through short films or video diaries. The fact is that he's not the most overly talented actor or filmmaker out there. What we end up with is a series of clips which are quite boring and often extremely pretentious. It's when trying to be too clever that the film is at it's worst. When the camera is just rolling, and we see the individuals for who they really are, it is a thoroughly engaging piece of film.
By the end of the movie, though, there is less of the pretension and more of the raw stuff. This seems to coincide with everyone growing older, and that is definitely a positive thing. It's a bittersweet climax to the film, and one which gave me a level of satisfaction I didn't think I'd get at the beginning.
'Tarnation' is an ambitious documentary, made by a young man who did his very best to fuse together the stark reality of his home life and his own creativity. The result is an (ironically) schizophrenic film, but a powerful one.
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