Watching Jonathan Caouette's amazing autobiographical documentary Tarnation is like descending into a pop-music, underground-movie hell and heaven, the shattered and shattering landscape of a living body and mind. It's a film vision both painfully lucid and charged with delirium and ecstasy.
Traversing his own life and hard times - and those of his mother, Renee LeBlanc, and grandparents Adolph and Rosemary Davis - through 20 years of mostly home-movie material he had shot since the age of 11, Caouette has crafted a brilliant piece of confessional cinema, one capable of radically altering the film world around it.
Tarnation (which opens today at the Charles) is a shock wave of intimacy and horror. Shot for an initial budget of $218.32, it is as raw and personal as a movie can be, the equivalent of a cinematic journal or diary. But it's also artfully constructed and articulated, written, edited and musically designed with often jolting brilliance.
In a way, those mixed qualities - the painful candor, fever-dream artifice and showmanship - reflect Caouette's mixed personality. An outsider who is also a natural self-dramatizer, he has apparently, from age 11, been constructing alternate personalities and worlds for himself, both as occasions for delight and tactics of survival.
Now 31, a part-time actor transplanted to New York City from the suburbs of Houston, Caouette is first seen in a seemingly stable life with his lover, David Sanin Paz. But as the past floods back after a family crisis (his mother's lithium overdose), his life begins to unspool like a Southern Gothic horror movie inspired by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.
From childhood, Caouette's viewpoint was molded both by acting gifts and a depersonalization disorder (marked by a detachment from one's own thoughts or body). But even more, as he shows unsparingly, it was molded by his family - the colorful eccentricities of the grandparents who brought him up and the tragic disintegration of his mother, a one-time child actress and teen beauty who was left partly paralyzed for six months after a rooftop accident at age 12 and then suffered years of electro-shock therapy.
Caouette builds up an atmosphere of dread and sadness. The bright, happy little youngster doing drag acts at 11 gives way to a more morose and moody longhaired teen who vandalizes his home and stages suicide attempts before his escape to New York. We watch his mother sink into depression and his grandparents age (and, in one case, die). Yet when we see any of them, it's rarely in tears or obvious anguish, but in laughing jags, temper tantrums or on-camera mugging that seem to reflect a deeper anguish.
Tarnation is also an inspiring film, and not only because it may influence some of its audience to confront their own lives with similar passion.
Its title, of course, is a playful Southern term for hell, and by his film's end, Caouette has not only left hell behind and exorcised his devils but perhaps some of ours as well.
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Directed by Jonathan Caouette
Released by Wellspring
Time 88 minutes
Sun Score ***1/2