I’ve deliberately waited around for a few weeks before coalescing my thoughts of and reactions to Jonathan Caouette’s one-of-a-kind film Tarnation. I’ve been amused by how distant the reviews I’ve read manage to be. At the press screening here in Seattle, it was obvious that the few who showed up were shaken after watching this film. And little wonder: it’s a movie about growing up damaged and gay and being obsessed by movies. In telling his story, Caouette showed me a version of my own, just as surely as he showed all the hipsters sitting near me in the dark a version of theirs.
Since that overwhelming afternoon, I’ve taken a second look at Tarnation, this time with paying civilians. Its flaws are significantly more pronounced on closer examination; the film isn’t a masterpiece. Deprived of shock value, Tarnation loses much, yet just enough remains so that I concur with these notes I scribbled in the press kit on the first go-round: it’s a movie that every critic—every person who loves the visual arts and pop culture—hopes to experience, a work of art that makes you feel lucky to be living in the same lifetime as its maker.
Caouette’s biggest mistake comes almost right away. After an invitingly kooky prologue in which his mother Renee LeBlanc, wearing a Les Miz T-shirt and indoor shades, sings “This Little Light of Mine” in an off-key, little girl voice, the director cuts to his New York apartment in 2002, to exhibitionist close-ups of his unshaven, stubble-covered face as he reacts in misery to the news of his mother’s lithium overdose. Caouette shoves his anguish at us well before we’re with him or have reason to be. Shot on high saturation video that makes the dark, stubbly beard resemble a matte of daggers piercing our hero’s skin, these images ask too much too soon. And the way he sets up the narrative, returning from New York to his native Houston via bus to rescue his mother, his physical journey occasioning a metaphorical one into the past, feels too Hollywood by several miles.
From then on, however, his choices of editing, scoring, and sound design are often brilliant and always evocative, such as the use of an unseen young woman reading Desiderata in uninflected, wispily high tones over home movie footage of landscapes and roadsides passing rapidly by. (The voice belongs to Renee.) Caouette beautifully creates a sense of unease that matches in intangible ways to the death of childhood through parental abuse—his film’s great, harrowing subject.
Screen titles fill the gaps from montage to montage; ultimately, I grew a bit frustrated by them—they kept me too distant from the people and events I wanted to see for myself—even so, some of Caouette’s title screens and the music he mixes under them suggest the actual images. Hearing Glen Campbell sing “Wichita Lineman” as the text on screen tells us about Renee’s rape in front of the 4-year-old Jonathan, I felt I was privy to that same back-alley nightmare. It’s a rare director who can accomplish so much with the power of suggestion, and Caouette does.
Tarnation’s aesthetic centerpiece incorporates clips from the films and television shows that Jonathan watched in his young adolescence. In a viscerally compelling use of split screens, Caouette juxtaposes imagery from Rosemary’s Baby, The Wiz, Phantasm and assorted other horror movies, plus an after-school special of the “Free to be You and Me” stripe, the kids from Zoom singing their theme song, a Sandy Dennis picture I still haven’t identified, and Dolly Parton doing her madam number from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Caouette rotates these clips on quadruple frames within the frame; going one better, Caouette, who began videotaping his life at age 11, inserts footage of himself as a youth, curled up in front of the television—watching. Observe how his posture on the sofa changes as the scenes change.
This astonishing sequence becomes an ode to what movies give us—especially when we’re young—an ode to the strength those images and stories provide when the rest of our lives doesn’t measure up. And there’s something else, besides, that gives these movie retrospectives and movie fantasies a greater resonance than mere pop cultural nostalgia. Tarnation is the only film I’ve ever seen that truthfully, accurately portrays a young, adolescent male’s elevation of his own bad taste into something grand and transformative. (That’s also the reason why honest, full disclosure reviews of this film are likely to remain a rarity. Most of the “critics” I know are still unreconstructed revelers.) When the teenage Caouette “casts” a rock opera based on his life with the performers who most tickle his fancy—Zero Mostel and Louise Lasser as the abusive grandparents, Joni Mitchell as his tortured mother, and Robbie Benson as Jonathan in tandem with the singers from Zoom as a not especially Greek chorus—I both laughed at the sheer mania of it and also cringed with the self-recognition that only a former “casting director” can know.
Caouette’s filmmaking instincts are shaped by a 1980s underground pop sensibility; until seeing Tarnation, I had no idea the extent to which I remain indebted to, for example, the film Liquid Sky or the dark ambient recordings from 4A.D. In the mid-80s, in the midst of that era, I took its artifacts for granted; Tarnation brings it back, a rich milieu too long absent from the movies or my life.
Caouette grew up fatherless. As did I. What’s especially unnerving is that in our adolescences Caouette and I had such similar recurring dreams. Caouette’s dreams centered around a tall blond boy, someone who resembled the child actor in Stanley Donen’s film of The Little Prince. I don’t remember whom I dreamt about, but the basic archetype stays the same: a mythical male figure who represents a fantastical savior, one to lift us out of the quotidian, far, far away from abuse, pain, and our relatives. Caouette also dreams of the father he’d never met, a weighty absence for a young man in search of role models, and while this is deeply moving, I found it disingenuous that Caouette skirts by without a mention of his own non-custodial 9-year-old son.
Finally, there is Renee LeBlanc, the acute bipolar and schizoaffective mother around whom Tarnation turns. Ms. LeBlanc, with her jagged, small teeth, her wild, witch’s mane of jet black hair, and her childlike manner that age merely exacerbates, is—as the saying goes—a piece of work. She loves to sing and dance and to show off. A former child model whose fortunes took a catastrophic early turn, LeBlanc has the energy and spirit of creative persons whose lives and plans have been thwarted, persons who are secret entertainers in the privacy of their homes. (In one mesmerically disturbing scene, LeBlanc, who has earlier announced, “I take lithium and I’m a good girl,” dances about and giggles while clutching a small pumpkin, the room behind her filled with large, porcelain dolls clad in Victorian dress.)
The movie also has something to show us about the ways in which mothers and adult sons sometimes connect as friends much later in life. The New York scenes of Renee and Jonathan frolicking and arguing, circa 2000, have a kind of grace and fascination to them, particularly Renee’s resistance to discussing her hospitalizations, and her young auteur’s frustration. This sweetness, too, has a flipside. Near the end, Caouette, aged 31, turns the camera on himself and confesses all our fears: “I don’t ever want to turn out like my mother.” – NPT
November 8, 2004