Comprising home videos, snapshots, video diaries, phone messages and a sprinkling of pop culture, the film documents the traumatic lives of Jonathan Caouette and his mother Renee, as they struggle with illness, drugs, abuse and an unkind fate. Caouette began documenting his life at the age of 11 - the age he first knew he was gay. His mother, separated before he was born, suffered from a variety of mental disturbances which may or may not have been caused by shock therapy given to her after a home accident that left her paralysed for months. Jonathan was a teenager when he was given two marijuana joints that had been laced with one chemical and dipped in another, resulting in his suffering from depersonalisation ever since.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Documentary is not quite the right description for Tarnation, but I wonder what is. A stream of consciousness held together by the underlying life story of mother and son, a tale so achingly sad as to be surreal. Indeed, there is a strong tone of the surreal in the work, which is punctuated by manipulated images ranging from kaleidoscope to mirroring effects, to split screens and distortions, all of it held together by text on the screen that sums up the highlights - or lowlights, to be exact - of these lives.
Never predictable, always challenging, Tarnation (which rightly enough means damnation) begins in bizarre fashion, but the first milestone moment is Jonathan's first home video, in which at 11, he plays a drag act, playing a young woman in the kinds of trouble he was by then all too familiar. This emotive, declarational performance mines the melodramatic potential of his sad but real life so deeply that we are left shocked and moved and defenceless. It's one of the film's most tragic moments.
We learn of his mother's accident, falling off the roof and landing without bending her legs. It paralysed her for six months, and her parents, Rosemary and Adolph Davis (who figure prominently and dramatically in the film - were persuaded (by persons unnamed) to send her to electric shock therapy for two years. Whether this was the cause of her subsequent mental illness is not clear, but it would not be too surprising.
As for Jonathan, fate had an equally mean sleight of hand in store: as a youngster he was given two nasty, spike joints, which he smoked in quick succession. The effect was to cause a mental disorder known as depersonalisation: in brief, it's like being unable to concentrate, and feeling as though you are watching yourself.
The film begins and ends with a young voice reciting the Desiderata, that impossibly idealistic, uplifting and optimistic ode to humanity, serving both to counterpoint the darkness of the film, and ultimately to help ease the pain of its darkness with a ray of hope. Surprisingly, the cumulative effect of Tarnation is less damned than redeemed.
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CAST: Documentary with Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, Rosemary and Adolph Davis
PRODUCER: Stepheh Winter
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Caouette
SCRIPT: Jonathan Caouette
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jonathan Caouette
EDITOR: Jonathan Caouette, Brian A. Kates
MUSIC: John Califra, Max Avery Lichtenstein
PRODUCTION DESIGN: N/a
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Dendy
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 14, 2005