The Movie Review: 'Tarnation'

"Am I on?" asks the figure on camera, who identifies herself as "Laura Lou." "This is like a testimony, isn't it?" She wipes her face nervously, explaining, "Jimmy says when I wear too much makeup it makes me look like a whore." Her story is about the beatings she used to take from her drunken husband; she tells it between sobs, tugging at her bangs as if to hide behind them. At one point she breaks down altogether. "I can't talk," she weeps. "This is really hard for me." But she assembles herself again and goes back to her sad tale. "One night," she says, "he got out the gun. I was tied up on the bed. And he came and pointed it to my head. And he said, 'I'll kill you, bitch. I'll kill you.'" She pauses. "It was the other way around. I got out the gun one night, blew his ass away."

 It's not among the greatest performances ever committed to the screen, but it is nonetheless a memorable one. This is because Laura Lou is played convincingly by an eleven-year-old boy, Jonathan Caouette, who also wrote the scene and filmed it on his Super 8 camera, without any apparent adult supervision or assistance.

The clip is one of many eerie, fascinating home-movie snippets that Caouette, now all of 31, plundered for his acclaimed 2004 film Tarnation, recently released on video. An autobiographical documentary (A.O. Scott dubbed it a moicumentary) initially put together on a home computer for a few hundred dollars, Tarnation was a smash hit on the festival circuit and, for better or worse, has been widely cited as a film likely to usher in a new era of intimate, idiosyncratic, independent filmmaking.

The story told by Caouett is a bleak one. It begins with the 1950s Texas childhood of his mother, Renee. A beauty as a young girl, Renee was a sought-after child model and TV-commercial star. But at age twelve she fell off a roof and for six months was paralyzed, though for no apparent physiological reason. Believing her ailment to be psychosomatic, her parents, Adolph and Rosemary, sent her for electroshock therapy twice a week for two years. Caouette contends that, far from treating a pre-existing ailment, the shock therapy pushed his mother into a lifetime of mental illness.

Rene was briefly married, but her husband left her while she was pregnant (he apparently didn't know), and she gave birth to Jonathan in 1973. A few years later, apparently in the grip of a psychotic episode, she took Jonathan to Chicago, despite having no money and no place to stay. There, she was raped in front of her son by a man who offered them a lift. On the return trip to Texas, they were thrown off the bus as a result of Renee's behavior. She was sent to jail; he was sent into foster care where, he says, he was physically abused. Jonathan was eventually adopted by his grandparents, while his mother bounced in and out of psychiatric institutions.

At 13, Jonathan began sneaking into gay night clubs by posing as a "petite Goth girl." Through friends he met there he discovered underground film, and soon he was making his own B-style horror shorts with titles such as The Ankle Slasher and The Goddamn Whore. (This latter starred his grandmother; a brief clip shows her hilariously, if inappropriately, shouting obscenities into the phone.) In his twenties, Jonathan moved to New York, where he found work as an actor and happiness in a long-term relationship. Back in Texas, however, his family continued to degenerate, culminating with a severe lithium overdose by his mother, an episode which serves to both open and close the film.

More striking than Caouette's tale, however, is the emphatic style with which he tells it, a kind of music-video pastiche with echoes of Andy Warhol, Gus Van Sant, and David Lynch. (It hardly comes as a surprise that Van Sant is among Tarnation's executive producers; or that, in high school, Caouette staged a musical version of Lynch's Blue Velvet, with the cast lip-synching Marianne Faithfull songs.) Old home movie footage is stitched together with fragments of everything from Rosemary's Baby to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The resulting montages are scored to songs as varied as Glenn Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" and the bittersweet ditty "Frank Mills" from "Hair." Saturated colors alternate with black and white, slow motion with time lapse photography. Perhaps most crucially, Tarnation features no narrative voiceover; instead it uses onscreen text to explain the story behind its impressionistic blur of images, a choice that gives the movie an unsettling affectlessness.

As a result, Tarnation seems simultaneously heartfelt and ironic, intimate and remote. If a story of such misfortune were told in this vein by anyone other than a direct participant, it would seem callous and exploitative. But the film's oddly detached tone seems reflective of Caouette himself, who claims to have suffered from a "depersonalization disorder" as a result of PCP-laced joints he smoked as a boy.

Tarnation is, in other words, an unusual and frequently arresting film. But it is also a troubling one, to a degree and for reasons not adequately discussed. The chief complaint critics leveled against the movie involved Caouette's apparent narcissism. And it's true that the director's handsome features take up more than their share of screen time in a film that is ostensibly about his mother. But the deeper problems with Tarnation concern its authenticity as a documentary.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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