This is one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen. It’s not fiction but it’s not a conventional docu- mentary, it’s melodramatic but it’s also wildly experimental. You could say it’s post-cinema (as in post-rock), a bridge between past and current techniques, and a glimpse of what the future of moviemaking might be like. With the advances of technology, it’s becoming increasingly easy to make movies out of almost nothing, and this is a spectacular example.
What Jonathan Caouette has done is create a riveting 80 minutes picture out of a lifetime of photographs, home movies, answering machine messages… Using intertitles as a narration device, Caouette tells us about how his grandparents put his mother in the loony bin, abusive foster parents, going to new wave clubs at 13 disguised as a petite Goth girl, directing a high school theater version of “Blue Velvet” in which the actors lip-synch to Marianne Faithful songs, making bizarre Super 8 flicks with his grandma, eventually moving from Texas to New York to become an actor, and reconnecting with his mom only to have her suffer brain-damage after a lithium overdose.
It soon becomes clear that filming his surroundings has long been his way to cope with difficult circumstances. He’s basically using his camera as a diary, taking in his mother’s degrading mental state and his own confusion about life. Using his Mac’s iMovie software, Caouette mixes thousands of images and sounds (including original score music by Max Avery Lichtenstein and songs by Low) into a kaleidoscopic vision that is often heartbreaking in its raw depiction of real-life events, but it can also be exhilaratingly impressionistic.
“Tarnation” was exec produced by openly gay filmmakers Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell and Caouette’s own homosexuality plays a big part in who he is, but the feelings and artistic impulses expressed here are universal. Some might find this to be a rather self-centred venture, what with the way Caouette refers to himself in the third person and his drama queen tendencies, but the drama is real and ultimately, isn’t every movie somewhat autobiographical?