Reviewed by: Nick Jones

"You don't simply watch Tarnation; you see, hear and taste it."

It doesn't get any more personal than this. Jonathan Caouette's debut, a documentary about his own life from infancy to the present day, is a landmark in modern cinema.

It cost just over $200 to make and was edited using iMovie, signalling a potential revolution in do-it-yourself filmmaking. More important, however, is the result, the experience of witnessing what has been achieved on-screen. Caouette isn't simply here to document. Through answerphone messages, clips from old TV shows, monologues and interviews, we lose ourselves in his memory.

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You don't simply watch Tarnation; you see, hear and taste it. Caouette has a story to tell and it is devastating. Born in Texas, his mother Renee's life is idyllic to begin with; she is a child star and later a beauty queen. It all turns sour when a mental illness is diagnosed (perhaps wrongly, we learn later) and her parents agree to start her on shock therapy. The highly questionable treatment, coupled with her repeated incarcerations in institutions eventually removes any trace of her former personality. It also distances her physically and emotionally from her son, who meanwhile is being abused in foster homes.

Jonathan survives this and many other traumas and eventually fulfils his aspiration to live in New York, where he starts directing plays and even settles down with a partner. Despite his newfound stability, however, he cannot escape his bond with Renee, and his love for her (and his curiosity about her past) leads to unforeseen developments in the family dynamic.

Another fascinating relationship, integral to this movie, is that between the director and the camera. Like his mother, Caouette suffers from a mental condition. Diagnosed at an early age with depersonalisation, he sees the world as a dream, like an ongoing outer body experience. His skewered view of reality is simulated superbly through his use of distorted faces, mirrored images and voice overlays. The sense of delirium is often unsettling, like that of a febrile hallucination, but is also indescribably beautiful.

Perhaps it is Caouette's psychological detachment with allows him to study his surroundings with such concentration, taking in every detail with all of his sense. His style is organic and intuitive, the effect hypnotic. Whilst he is a visionary behind the camera, his documentary is often most telling when he is filming himself.

A great moment comes when he meets his father for the first time, which coincides spookily with a visit from Renee. He lets the camera roll whilst he interviews his parents who are in the same room together for the first time in more than 30 years. The conversation gets heated and Renee is reluctant to continue answering questions but when she returns her son has moved into shot, perched next to his father, leaving the camera to capture the moment.

This is his family photo. It may be 30 years late, but better late than never. If you don't grasp moments when they present themselves, how can you remember them forever?

Sad, disturbing, but ultimately cathartic, Tarnation is a unique and unforgettable experience. Rarely has a director been so brave and passionate, and never has a film seemed so brutally honest and real. Unspeakable things have happened to this young man in his life and yet he speaks of them. Standing boldly in the ugly face of watered-down reality TV he teaches it a hard lesson in what it takes to truly "keep it real".

We are reminded that reality comes in many forms and after watching this transcendental masterpiece you feel like you've just had a dream and lived someone else's life, all at the same time.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2005
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One man's ultra-personal documentary about growing up with a schizophrenic mum.
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Read more Tarnation reviews:

John Gallagher ***1/2
Gary Duncan *

Director: Jonathan Caouette

Writer: Jonathan Caouette

Starring: Jonathan Caouette, Renee Leblanc, Adolph Davis, Rosemary Davis, David Sanin Paz

Year: 2003

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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