Essentially a work of editing, Tarnation was crafted by Jonathan Caouette, a man who can be called a first-time filmmaker only in the nationally distributed sense of the word. On his own, ever since he was a child, he has been making films for years: capturing his devastating home life on Super-8, recording video diaries, crafting horror shorts with junior high school buddies, even "staging" movies by himself in his backyard, all to escape his family.
This archivism resulted in 160 hours of footage, from which Caouette, now 31, culled 90 minutes. Tarnation, the resulting film, is the story of his life. It's also the story of his consciousness, fractured by depersonalization disorder, an affliction that gives a person the sense of living in a dream world, of being outside himself and observing himself acting. Given the degree of trauma Caouette suffered as a child, coupled with the mental illness in his family, his tendency toward dissociation comes as little surprise.
Caouette's problems began before he was born, with his mother. As a teenager in suburban Houston, Renee was subjected to two years of electroshock therapy, from which she emerged with both bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. From 1965 to 1999, Renee made 100 visits to psychiatric hospitals. Jonathan was born in 1972. As a result, he was raised primarily by his grandparents, though this did not protect him from witnessing his mother's rape. He also spent time in foster care, where he was tied up and beaten. In one of the film's grimly funny moments, 15-year-old Jonathan fantasizes about a rock opera of his life and casts Uta Hagen and Klaus Nomi as the foster parents.
Amid this wreckage, Jonathan developed a glamorous world of make-believe. As early as 11, he had a drag act to beat the band, laying on a thick Southern accent and posing as an abused wife (his mother, we later learn). This footage is the film's most riveting, with a gorgeous Jonathan demurring before the camera, tucking his white-blond hair behind his ear. And this was merely the beginning of an entire adolescence characterized by performance: seeing underground film, making underground film, even directing musical theater. In high school, Jonathan and his boyfriend staged a musical version of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, in which their classmates lip-synched to Marianne Faithfull songs. The footage of this event is hilarious.
Performance -- particularly film -- was a survival tool for Jonathan; it was a way for him to escape his life. In Tarnation, film becomes a way for Caouette to confront what he used to escape. But any examination of Jonathan's life includes an examination of performance, not just by him but by his mother, who hams for the camera almost constantly. That gives Tarnation a kind of circular self-consciousness; it tries to locate its subjects behind performances that say more than anything else who its subjects are. Caouette is never entirely sure what's real, both because of his disorder and because of his family, which can't agree on any version of events. His mother certainly can't be trusted to identify reality. His grandmother has died, his grandfather has Alzheimer's, and his father has long since fled. There's nothing but the film, and the film was created by Jonathan. Consciousness is a messy thing.
Speaking of which, Tarnation's most notable aspect is its form, a jumbled montage of Super-8, video, stills, and digital video with titles. That is, Caouette uses on-screen text, and not voice-over, to tell us his story -- and quite a lot of it. It's a fractured, dreamlike experience, with a brooding soundtrack and a hazy vibe. Caouette is replicating his disorder, showing what the world looks like to him, and he does a masterful job. But it's far from easy to spend even 90 minutes in his head. For one thing, there's too much text, and it's too explanatory ("Jonathan could no longer remember what 'normal' felt like"). In addition, the film often feels like a music video, running for long stretches into a blur of images and sound.
In an after-screening interview and in the press material, much was made of the fact that Caouette assembled the film in three weeks. Encouraged by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and a film-festival deadline, Caouette powered through his archives, forging a nonfiction film about himself instead of the more fictional work he had initially intended. He made the deadline, and the film went to Sundance, where it was warmly received. But three weeks was not enough for this material. More time and more attention could have spared us the titles, some of the musical montages, and the sense that the film, while hardly long, feels endless. It is a bold and new work, but it needed more care.