Tarnation

Low budget innovation and narcissism collide in this arresting debut.

By Patricia Lennox-Boyd

Since a teenager, Jonathan Caouette has obsessively filmed his family and, now in his thirties, he has assembled his first feature film from the collected reams of footage. Tarnation is a personal diary of his turbulent upbringing, and its strength lies in the fevered mixture of material: Super-8, Betamax, Hi-8 and Mini-DV, as well as photographs and answer phone messages, put together in a chaotic collage. It’s a shattered mirror-image of his family life, the shards of which won’t quite fit together: flashing images, bits of music, excerpts from movies, snippets of conversation, conflicting opinions. Often self-contradictory, it mimics the rhythm of memory, the free-association of a mind.

The film was a big critical hit at Sundance and other festivals, and much has been made of its tiny initial budget of $218.32, and the fact that Caouette edited it on imovie (software that comes free with Mac computers). Tarnation has been branded a cinematic ‘revolution’ which paves the way for no-budget filmmakers to make it onto the big screen. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is the first film of its kind. Nor by any stretch the best. Tarnation is certainly an achievement given Caouette’s meagre resources, but familiarity with the works of Stan Brackhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, or the gay underground of Warhol or George Kuchar (and the list goes on), should temper the cries of ‘masterpiece’.

Tarnation is at its best during the more abstract sequences when Caouette allows the material to dictate the structure, and lets different voicings emerge from the flow of images rather than imposing too much of his agenda on it. Not that the story is bad: most audiences will be fascinated by what we’re told about Jonathan’s mother Renée who suffers from mental illness, was allegedly abused as a child by her parents, and was damaged by the electroshock therapy she was subjected to after a childhood injury. But the material is often handled with clumsiness and hysteria. So keen to provide drama (as if the bones of the story aren’t enough!), Caouette over-uses digital editing effects. He’s particularly fond of the tool which allows you to multiply an image several times over so that the screen is infested with a matrix of tiny square images – a Warholian deluge of replicas. But these effects are a gimmicky way of showing Renée and himself as powerless commodities in the hands of society/family, or of making a comment on the power of the digital revolution (of which this film is a part) to breed virtual images at a frightening speed.

Critics have commented that Tarnation is primarily about Renée, and is a token of love from son to mother, and they praise it as such. It seems to me extraordinary that so many have overlooked the force of narcissism which is at the centre of this film. Caouette sets up adoring close-ups of himself. He pouts, he flirts, he dresses up, he vomits, he weeps. When not doing so, he positions his camera (and his ego) so that he can capture the distress of family members for ‘his’ film. ‘Capture’ is a crucial word here: in Capturing The Friedmans (2003), Andrew Jarecki explores the way in which to film or video a person is not only to record his/her existence at a certain moment in time, but thereby to imprison that person in a particular version of themselves and broadcast it to paying audiences. In Capturing The Friedmans, we see David Friedman prefacing his video diary with a warning: “This is private… you really shouldn’t be watching this… this is a private situation between me now and me in the future… so turn it off.”

Turn it off: that’s what comes to mind when Caouette presses his mother to talk to the camera about her traumatic past and she runs away shouting “I’ve had enough problems honey without bringing up the past ok? – we can talk John, we don’t need it on film”. Or when his grandmother, Rosemary, is put in front of the camera after a stroke, thrashing about like a wild animal and with a strange wig on. She’s told to speak – “whadda ya want me to say?” she mumbles, “I don’t feel like it”.

In Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly (1960), one of the crucial scenes involves Karin, who is mentally ill, reaching into the drawers of her father’s desk to find his diary, discovering with shock an entry which reads: “her illness is incurable… I’m horrified by my curiosity. By my urge to record its course. To make an accurate description of her gradual disintegration. To use her.” But whereas Bergman’s film is a negotiation with the problems of artist as voyeur, Caouette does not pause to reflect on what motivates his need to subject vulnerable loved-ones to the point-blank stare of his camera.
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