The greatest creation is the life you lead…


Every so often I will encounter a film that seems to be designed to shake me, cutting almost to the bone in order to remind me just how prosaic most movies are. The 2004 documentary “Tarnation” is one such film, and its effect is so profound that it has been rattling around in my head for days. Over the course of 20 years Jonathan Caouette assembled the film out of what could best be described as cinematic bric-a-brac. Made on a budget of $218.32 using the free iMovie software on his Apple computer, Caouette created a film that is at once both a howl of pain and a cry of resilience and love. That love is directed toward his mentally ill mother (Renee LeBlanc), whom he loves and cares for in spite of every thing she is and everything she has done. At a young age Renee fell from the roof of her parents home and landed without bending her knees. The fall caused her to descend into a state of paralysis and depression, so her parents, at the advice of their doctor, administered over 200 shock treatments (electroconvulsive therapy specifically) to their daughter over the course of two years. This was long before shock treatment came under the scrutiny that it is subject to today. She was left forever scarred, and developed a mental illness that is never clearly defined but is most likely either schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Caouette blames the illness on the excessive shock treatments that took place at her parents approval.

Caouette also suffers from mental illness, namely depersonalization disorder, a dissociative disorder characterized by periods where the sufferer feels as though they have stepped outside of themselves and can see themselves in the third person, as though they are moving through a dream. The disorder most likely stems from his horrific life in foster homes, where he was brutally abused and tortured by his foster parents. Beginning at age 11, Jonathan inhabits characters and performs monologues for a home video camera. Two such recordings are shown in the doc, and both involve Caouette pretending to be an abused woman soliloquizing her trauma. These monologues are disturbingly and cannily insightful, especially for an 11 year old boy, which leads one to believe that they are used as way for Jonathan to channel and separate himself from his own experiences. At an early age, Jonathan realizes that he is homosexual, and to hear an 11 year old boy come to grips with his sexuality in a very mature way, with no sense of confusion is rather remarkable. Young Jonathan has a more difficult time explaining his mental illness, and he tries to reassure the camera that he’s “not crazy”.

The film is remarkable in its construction and its use of the iMovie software, Caouette uses almost nonstop stylistic techniques as sort of Brechtian devices to create a certain a distance from the material. But he’s distancing the material from himself, not from us. Everything on screen is deeply felt by the audience, perhaps in spite of its stylistic excesses. This mirrors Caouettes coping mechanisms: the monologues, the constant recording of his own life, and one instance where he pretends to be a petite Goth lesbian in order to gain access to a gay nightclub at the age of 13.

The movie opens with a scene that is obviously staged: Caouette discovers that his mother has overdosed on lithium. I believe that this actually happened, and Caouette simply decided to recreate the event for the sake of the film. There are no cinematic laws against that, not even unwritten ones. Werner Herzog did similar things in his doc “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”. Charges of histrionics, egocentrism, and narcissism have also been leveled at Caouette, presumably because the documentary chronicles the abuse and horror he has endured in the 20 years covered in the film. These critics level their accusations with a sense of caustic superiority that nauseates me. One critic, in a relatively positive review, pondered whether or not praising the movie would be like “praising the emperor on his beautiful new wardrobe”. If you are constantly in fear of being caught praising an emperor with no clothes, that means you’ve never had an original thought or genuine opinion in your entire life. “Tarnation” is widely praised for a reason: it’s a harrowing, disturbing, innovative, and deeply felt film created by a person with inspiring resiliency in the face of his awful circumstances. He has taken his pain and the remnants of his shattered life and created something that is therapeutic for himself and riveting for his audience. Last time I checked, that’s what you call “art”.


~ by frankmc5 on September 20, 2009.

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