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
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Recommended by a friend as an interesting look at an odd character, I came to Tarnation not sure of what to expect. Reviewers' opinions seemed divided, classifying it as some sort of an experimental documentary. Always on the lookout for something new and original, I was hoping for the best.
Discovering that his mentally unwell mother has overdosed on lithium, Jonathan Caouette journeys back through the lifetime of home video he has shot, reconstructing and reevaluating the unusual story of his life and that of his family.
Beginning with the aforementioned discovery before turning back the clock and examining Caouette's life from conception to present, Tarnation presents a comprehensive life portrait of its subject, as documented by that very same subject. Therein, one supposes, lies the problem. The first thirty minutes of the film, taking us up to Caouette's mid-teenage years, exhibit immediately the experimental nature of it all: rapid-pace, elliptical editing; expressionistic usage of music. A collection of images and videos supplemented with multi-coloured captions informs us of the difficult early life of Caouette and his single mother, a woman deeply affected by electroshock therapy in her youth. The way in which the footage and pictures are combined is a testament to the darkness of childhood, be it jaded by misfortune or not. We are given an intimate glance into the psyche of youth: the fears, anguishes, and weaknesses which characterise it. For as long as this lasts, the film is entirely captivating and alarmingly disquieting, a fascinating examination of mental trauma and the effect it has upon us in our formative years. Once we exit his childhood, however, we begin to see Caouette and his film for what they really are. Fortunately for him, he escapes childhood relatively unscathed, a perfectly normal and functional person, his fate far removed from the sad one accorded his mother, herself left to a life of wild mood swings and delusional paranoia. The film has been publicised as a chronicle of this mother-son relationship "torn apart by dysfunction and reunited through the power of love", but in actuality Caouette's mother is a secondary character. We do not see how these people join together to form a family despite their problems. We do not see an inquisition into the causes and effects of mental illness. We do not see the depth and darkness suggested by the first half hour. What we do see, in abundance, is further footage of Caouette dancing, making faces, setting up cameras, looking at cameras, watching things, and occasionally taking out his genitals. It is a steep drop from the intelligent and almost moving beginning of the film to the self-serving, self-involved, entirely selfish waffle that follows. It's not awful, and the film has the sense to conclude with something of a meaningful moment, but there are no fewer than forty-five minutes of nonsense; of Caouette showing himself off for the camera. I take offence to being lured into a film under the pretense of exploring a serious issue and being faced instead with an average adult showing me all his home videos. Why should this interest me anymore than anyone else's life? Because his mother has mental issues? Her only purpose is to show how difficult Caouette's life can be, and his fears of what he might one day become. He employs his mother's illness as an excuse to have us listen to his life story, and I for one find that shameful.
Faltering tremendously after its first thirty minutes, Tarnation does at least start strong, promising an intimate portrait of the psychological impact of a traumatic upbringing and the implications of dealing with familial mental health problems. It descends all too readily into an ego-inflammatory adulation of its subjectperhaps unsurprising, given that filmmaker and subject are one and the same. The best recommendation I can give is to turn it off after thirty minutes and pretend it's a short, because those thirty minutes exhibit interesting, harrowing, well-made, and well-worthy documentary filmmaking.
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