TARNATION (Jonathan Caouette, 2004)
Today’s affordable, available technology offers anyone the chance to be a filmmaker as long as the individual has a story to tell. Jonathan Caouette is proof that you don’t need a hundred million dollar budget or big-name stars to make a movie. He used an iMac to compile old photos, footage he started shooting as a teenager, answering machine messages, and film and TV clips into his feature TARNATION. In fact, he made the film for the widely quoted amount of $218, although rights clearances and the distributor’s associated costs quickly shot that price into the hundreds of thousands once the film was purchased. Caouette directs, edits, and stars in this video diary of his dysfunctional family. TARNATION tells the story about his mother Renee, a child model who was injured and unnecessarily put through electroshock treatment. She never recovered from the damage. The aftereffects caused great harm in Jonathan’s formative years too, but through it all his love for his mother never dwindled.
TARNATION is a confessional film so emotionally naked and fearless that at times it can be uncomfortable to watch. Caouette reveals himself and his family life to a startling degree. It would feel exploitative if we didn’t see how much he cares for his mother and his grandparents. Typically, harrowing personal stories like Caouette’s are marked with anger and victimization, but TARNATION is relatively free of those qualities. As a first-time experimental filmmaker, Caouette displays remarkable directing and editing skills. TARNATION is a dazzling piece of work that proves imagination is not limited by lack of money. While it is quite the impressive technical exercise, what lingers is Caouette’s relationship with his mother. Both have gone through their own hells, but rather than abandon his mother, he becomes her caretaker as best he can. The depth of his affection is powerfully shown in one of the film’s final moments, a gesture that says more than any of the flashy flourishes used to assemble the raw materials of his life.
(Review first aired on the February 15, 2005 NOW PLAYING)
(I first saw TARNATION at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in 2004. My thoughts at the time on the film can be found here.)