Film and TV

Tarnation: Life As He Knew It

TarnationYou may have heard about Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (I think I've mentioned it a couple times on this site). It's a work that's been in progress his entire life, but that he finally pieced together with Apple's iMovie software last year at a cost of $218.

Tarnation came into its own after Caouette submitted a segment of it as an audition tape for a film John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig) is doing — I'd guess it's the sex project he's working on but I could be wrong. Caouette didn't make the cast of that movie, but his clip did catch the attention of Cameron Mitchell and subsequently Gus van Sant, who became attached to Caouette's project as executive producers.

I went to see Tarnation the other afternoon, the first rainy day we've had in L.A. in a long time. It's not a date movie and it's certainly not a "feel good" movie, although Caouette's struggles and how he's dealt with them are cause for admiration and great respect. It was the perfect rainy day movie because it's introspective, cerebral, and haunting.

Tarnation is a brutal and visually fascinating collage of video, 8-millimeter film, photographs, and music that chronicles Jonathan Caouette's life. It's an often painfully revealing self-documentary. Caouette grew up outside of Houston and was raised primarily by his grandparents after his mother Renee, who figures prominently in the movie, endured rape, shock treatments, and mental illness. Caouette eventually came to take care of her. Tarnation is a window into that world but also the coming out story of a boy who finds himself defiantly different.

Tarnation2Although the film is often difficult to watch, there are touching bits of humor and tenderness that come through the pain. An early video has an astoundingly assured eleven-year-old (if I remember his age correctly) Jonathan acting out a drag domestic abuse melodrama. He later directs experimental Marianne Faithfull musicals and records himself lip-syncing the "Frank Mills" song from Hair. The scenes of mentally-ill Renee, who in the final minutes of the film relates a hypnotic, meandering soliloquy on the wonders of a pumpkin, are fraught with anxiety, but also with the deep care that a boy has for his mother.

This is not an easy film to watch but it's a mesmerizing achievement and perhaps the first piece of cinematic art to emerge from the do-it-yourself tools of our new digital age.

[Tarnation website]

Seattle Times: "Indie director's $218 movie gaining worldwide acclaim"

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  1. I'm going to see this next week... looking forward to it. Thanks for posting the review. It can use all the publicity it can get.

    Posted by: N | Oct 21, 2004 10:34:13 AM

  2. I read a review in Time Out before seeing it in NYC recently, and you are correct: Caouette did audition for the John Cameron Mitchell sex film but wasn't cast. Another note about Tarnation is that while the original cut of the film on iMovie cost $218, that does not include the heap of money that Mitchell and van Sant have spent promoting it. I think it's kind of funny that he's their new pet project. I guess they're taking a break from JT LeRoy for a while.

    Posted by: Chris | Oct 21, 2004 11:56:10 AM

  3. I am going tonight and really looking forward to it. I make films myself with some sucess (costing even less than $218 - vive dv and final cut pro!) I had a freind get his film shown at Sundance.... but he won't tell me how, I could van sant about now. Thanks for the review!

    Posted by: Vincent-louis Apruzzese | Oct 21, 2004 12:18:49 PM

  4. i saw it today in nyc! it's amazing! and while it ended a good five hours ago, i still feel like i wanna cry. but in a good way. i'm just kind of stunned, i guess. go see this movie!

    Posted by: gigi | Oct 21, 2004 7:39:53 PM

  5. yes, I'm looking forward to this one as well.

    I once saw Taxi Driver at the Nuart during a rainstorm- great atmosphere!

    Posted by: bmw | Oct 21, 2004 9:42:53 PM

  6. Am I the only one who found this movie despicably amoral? I was shocked to see how the filmmaker put his own insignificant story (gay in an unfriendly town, he listens to music and moves to a hovel in New York) in front of the far more pressing--and far more interesting--story of his mentally troubled mother. At first I thought that the film would be a sort of disquisition on growing up with a sick parent, but it quickly becomes clear that the movie is all about him and the mother is for show. The segment near the end of the film when he shows his mother, now truly deranged, lose all grip on reality is sickening and lacking any moral direction: a cheap blow and really, really not cool.

    Posted by: j.s.f. | Oct 24, 2004 4:33:59 PM

  7. You have very interesting site!
    Respect you!

    Posted by: John | Jul 3, 2007 11:38:24 AM

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