Dir:Jonathan Caouette. US. 2004. 88mins.
Alreadysomething of a myth in the world of US independent film, Tarnation wasmade on Apple's I-Movie programme for a total budget of $218.32 according to itsfilm-maker Jonathan Caouette. Screened at the Sundance Film Festival in theexperimental and often overlooked Frontier section, the film was immediately amagnet for attention, and is now one of three US selections in DirectorsFortnight at Cannes.
ButCaouette's savvy with a Mac is just one of several extraordinary elements in Tarnation.This is an autobiography which tells a haunting life story with bewitchingcinematic bravado. Going against the polish and studio stylings that havedominated US independent cinema of late, Tarnation and its I-Movieprimitiveness mark a welcome return to the personal artistic expressiveness ofthe early 1990s when bold, rough early films from Haynes, Araki et al werecoming to light at Sundance.
Neitherstrictly a documentary nor a piece of video art, Tarnation is definitelyan art film, and estimations of its commercial performance should be basedwithin those parameters. Not that it won't score theatrical sales. Wellspringhas already come on board to acquire worldwide rights to the film as well asfinance the finishing costs. It will generate a feast of publicity wherever itopens and should cause a stir in arthouses both in North America and in therest of the world.
Caouetteis gay, but the movie is not a "gay film". Using photos, home movies, videodiaries, audio recordings, phone messages, clips from his short films andimpressionistic visual mosaics set to 80s music, the film-maker tells the storyof his own life, his family and his memory.
Andwhat a life! His beautiful mother Renee fell off the roof when she was a child,an event which her parents, his grandparents Rosemary and Adolph, saw as thebeginning of a supposed mental illness. Subjected to repeated shock treatmentall through her teens, Renee has consequently spent most of her life in and outof institutions.
Abandonedby her husband in her 20s, Renee tried to raise Jonathan on her own but afterhe witnessed her being raped at the age of four in Chicago, he was put in statecare and went through a few horrendous years of abuse at the hands of fosterfamilies before being adopted by Rosemary and Adolph.
Auniquely gifted, intelligent and advanced young boy (we see him perform for thecamera in the made-up role of a coquettish prostitute at the age of 11),Jonathan himself goes through a tough childhood, with his agingparents/grandparents also subjecting him to brutal treatments for his erraticbehaviour which is eventually diagnosed as "depersonalisation", a conditionwhere the sufferer feels detached from his own life and a hyper sense ofunreality.
Ashis sexual identity emerges, he assertively comes out and enjoys longterm,loving relationships with a high school boyfriend and, when he finally movesfrom Texas to New York City, with the love of his life David Sanin Paz.
Butthe powerful bond he feels with his damaged schizophrenic mother continues tounderline his existence into his 30s when he is called back to Texas to visither after she has overdosed on lithium. Unable to see her live with the nowdecrepit Adolph, he decides to bring her to New York to live with him and Davidin Queens.
Aprecis of the film's story cannot do justice to its style or the colourfulpeople involved in the film. Caouette tries to reflect the thought processes ofhis depersonalisation disorder, using myriad technical effects, music andsurrealised imagery to evoke his memories. Renee and his grandparents, whosemurky history together remains shrouded in mystery, are eminently compelling towatch.
Ultimately,for all its technical ambitions, Tarnation is a uniquely movingtestament to the hardships and damage inflicted by life, whether that be mentalillness or abuse, and the means to endure them - artistic expression, and love,both romantic and familial. Caouette is not only offering a calling card foradvancement in his future career, but also an extremely personal resume whichwill resonate forcefully with discerning audiences everywhere.
US dist: Wellspring Media
Int'l sales: Wellspring Media (1) 212 686 6777
Exec prods: Gus Van Sant, John Cameron Mitchell
Main cast: Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, David Sanin Paz, RosemaryDavis, Adolph Davis