The Movie Review: 'Tarnation'

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"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.

Simply put, Caouette's reliability as a narrator is difficult if not impossible to gauge. There are peculiar omissions from his youth. He doesn't say, for example, when his family learned he was gay or how they responded--let alone what it was like to be a gay teen openly dating in 1980s Texas. Though a younger half-brother makes a brief appearance in the film, Caouette never explains his provenance: Did Renee remarry? What happened to the father? Worse, Caouette neglects altogether to mention the son he fathered at age 21, or the boy's mother, a woman with whom Caouette had a sexual relationship for years.

But more disturbing are the relatively contemporary scenes at the beginning and end of the film. By the time he shot these, Caouette presumably had some inkling of the film he wanted to make, and much of the footage seems obviously staged. The movie opens with glimpses of Caouette's newfound domesticity: His boyfriend, David, walks into their New York apartment; he finds Caouette sleeping on the sofa and wakes him; the two get into bed. Because all three shots were meticulously filmed with a stationary camera, it seems clear they were essentially "performed," right down to the telling details: the staticky TV that greets David's entrance, a groggy Caouette explaining that he'd been dreaming about his mother.

The same is true, more creepily, of the scenes relating to Renee's lithium overdose. Caouette films himself looking up "lithium overdose" online, and crying in David's arms, and breaking down during a phone conversation with the hospital, and vomiting in the toilet. How genuine could any of these moments be? At best, Caouette was aware of the camera as they unfolded; at worst, he fabricated them after the fact. (We never hear a voice on the other end of the telephone, and while we see Caouette cough over the toilet, we don't witness him actually throwing up.)

The last scene of the film takes place after Caouette has gone to Texas to rescue his mother, who suffered brain damage as a result of the overdose, and bring her back to New York with him. She is sleeping soundly on the sofa in Caouette's apartment (or at least she appears to be), and he walks over and touches the crease between her nose and upper lip. It recalls a bit of footage used earlier in the film, in which his grandfather told him that's the spot where God touches babies before they're born to take away their memories of heaven. Why did Caouette stroke his mother there? Perhaps in part because he had a fond memory of his grandfather's story. But more importantly, because he had that memory on film and knew he could play off it to construct a heartwarming conclusion.

These scenes are all crucial to the story Caouette wants to tell, about how he escaped family disarray and dysfunction in Texas for happiness and redemption in New York and how, in the end, he was able to save his mother too. This story may be genuine--I certainly hope it is--but it's impossible to tell, because so much of the footage Caouette uses to convey it appears manufactured.

A final concern: Of the main characters in Tarnation apart from Caouette, one is dead (his grandmother Rosemary), one is senile (his grandfather Adolph), and one is delusional (Renee). It's hard to imagine that any of the three could have given any meaningful consent to their portrayals in the film, which are frequently pitiable. (By contrast, boyfriend David is never shown in any but the most flattering light.) There is footage of poor, wizened Adolph sitting in a house that has been literally torn apart by Renee, alternating between oblivious good cheer ("We've got a happy family ... a wonderful family") and impotent rage (he tries to call the police to get Caouette to stop filming him). There's an extended clip of brain-damaged Renee singing and giggling like a child, enraptured by a small pumpkin. And worst, there's a scene of Rosemary severely impaired after a major stroke. Someone has put a dark wig on her head and Caouette encourages her to perform for the camera: "Do your Betty Davis imitation, Grandma." "I don't feel like it," she replies weakly.

It's one of several occasions in the film when Caouette's family members ask him to please put down the camera. Perhaps the most poignant takes place during Renee's first visit to New York, before the lithium overdose. The onscreen narration has informed us that on this trip she and her son "connected like never before." In his apartment, Caouette tries to interview her about her experiences in the psychiatric hospitals, but she retreats into another room. "You know, I'd like to find out some things about myself, too," Caouette complains. "We can talk, Jon," she replies. "We don't need it on film." Obviously, he disagreed.

The Home Movies List:

Docudramatics

Capturing the Friedmans (2003). Like Tarnation, the story of a family come undone, told in large part through old home movie footage. In this case, however, it's told by an outsider, and thus unfolds as journalism rather than artistic self-discovery. Though it begins as an attempt to solve a crime that may or may not have taken place, by the end this fascinating, sophisticated film has become an exploration of the malleability of memory.

My Architect (2003). A terribly overpraised film about legendary architect Louis I. Kahn directed by his semi-acknowledged illegitimate son, Nathaniel. As a survey of Kahn's work, it's adequate but unexceptional. When it comes to the oddness of Kahn's life (he had two long-term mistresses he treated like subordinate wives) and his death (anonymous and alone in the Penn Station men's room), Nathaniel is too nice, too diffident to dig very deep. The resulting film feels timid, as if the son still fears the dead father's wrath.

The Thin Blue Line (1988). The most straightforward of Errol Morris's documentaries, and perhaps the best. Though it contains the requisite flourishes (the stylized reenactments, the Phillip Glass score), at its core it's a Kafkaesque story of the criminal justice system's relentless effort to convict and execute an innocent man.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991). Perhaps the best of a lamentable genre, the "making of" movie (in this case of Apocalypse Now). It has its flaws--chief among them a wooden voiceover by Eleanor Coppola--but the details are mesmerizing, from Sheen's on-screen breakdown to the cast's drug use to the Philippine Army helicopters to Brando accidentally swallowing a bug. And, of course, there is Coppola himself before his long fall, equal parts megalomania and self-doubt. After watching The Aviator labor to portray Howard Hughes as a filmmaker of reckless, demented genius, it may be worth taking another look at the real thing. 

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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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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