By any rational standard, "Tarnation" ought to be unwatchable, the kind of self-indulgent, erratic mess that sends sensible people fleeing in the opposite direction. It ought to be, but it's not.
For filmmaking is hardly a rational endeavor -- it's about emotional connection, creativity and raw talent. And it's the intuitive cinematic gifts of 31-year-old director Jonathan Caouette, who made the film out of a lifetime of home movies for $218.32, thank you very much, that have turned "Tarnation" into a remarkable and remarkably compelling document.
This is nothing less than a one-of-a-kind film autobiography, a snapshot of a childhood hell from someone who used his imagination and dreams to make it out alive.
In 88 minutes, Caouette gives us the kind of wrenching American story that doesn't get told as often as it happens. It's about growing up gay and fatherless in suburban Texas with grandparents who could not cope and a mother who, likely for the flimsiest of reasons, was subjected to so much shock therapy it changed her personality and divorced her from reality.
Faced with a young life that included abusive foster homes, seeing his mother raped and a hospital stay triggered by smoking PCP-laced marijuana, it is not surprising that Caouette early on became intoxicated with performing as an escape. He had not only the need and the ability to throw himself headlong into fantasy but also the will to record it all. When his mother, Renee, complains at one juncture, "we can talk, Jon, you don't need it on film," she's missing the point. He does.
Clearly Caouette's strongest compulsion has always been to act out in front of a camera. Filming and recording himself became his central purpose, his method of making sense of and managing his and his mother's chaotic existence. The result was the accumulation of 160 hours of material shot on Super-8, Betamax, VHS, Hi-8 and Mini-DV covering more than 20 years of this boy's life.
But much more than the wrenching nature of Caouette's story, it's the literally phantasmagorical way he tells it that holds our attention. "Tarnation" throws a dizzying variety of visual stimulation at us from an overflowing cornucopia of images: old home movies and performance tapes, contemporary cinema verite, clips from vintage TV shows and films ranging from "Rosemary's Baby" to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." There's also a flood of non-moving images that the film feels free to colorize, solarize, reproduce in multiples and otherwise manipulate in an intuitive way that literally dazzles. The result is an accessible dream state that puts us inside Caouette's mind in a way that can't help but be affecting.
Another key to the filmmaker's success is his facility as an editor and his remarkable dispassion with material that clearly means a lot to him. Working initially on Apple's iMovie editing software, he knew enough not to linger, not to fall in love with his own footage.
This willingness to cut everything back, linked to an innate sense of what is worth holding onto, keeps an extremely personal film from feeling self-indulgent.
Caouette also has a keen sense of how to make sure the horrors of his life don't overwhelm the viewer. The hardest-to-take information is relayed to us not in voice-over but through type on the screen.
And the music on the film's soundtrack is not the angry, jarring cacophony you might expect but often soft rock on the order of Glen Campbell singing "Wichita Lineman." The contrast is more telling than anything more overt could be.
"Tarnation's" emotional through line is Caouette's deep connection to his troubled mother, his determination to almost will a relationship with her despite her limitations. "I can't escape," he says at one point. "She lives inside me."
Any facts of his life that don't relate to their bond, whether it be a child he fathered (included in the director's original longer cut) or the valuable Big Brother association he had with a Houston film critic, have been pared away.
"Tarnation's" narrative begins with a contemporary trip back to Texas by New Yorker Caouette because his mother, who by now has spent time in more than 100 mental hospitals over a 35-year period, has had a serious overdose of Lithium. That triggers a look at the history that preceded the journey.
We see Caouette at age 11, doing a frankly astonishing dramatic monologue, chilling in its precocity, as a troubled housewife. We see him sneaking into gay clubs at age 13, disguised as "a petite Goth girl." We see him making 8-millimeter underground films with names like "The Ankle Slasher" and "The Spit and Blood Boys" and doing David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" as a high school play with Marianne Faithfull's music. And we see him moving to New York and beginning the stable gay relationship he's in now.
Jonathan Caouette always saw his life as star material. He talks of a teenage dream of collaborating with producer Robert Stigwood on a rock opera of his life, with Robby Benson playing him and Zero Mostel playing his grandfather. "There would be nothing like it," he says, and his instinct was right. Many young people have dreamed similar dreams of stardom, but Caouette has pretty much made his happen. If ever a film deserved a "lived by" credit in the opening titles, "Tarnation" is the one.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
A Nightlight Films presentation, released by Wellspring. Director Jonathan Caouette. Producer Stephen Winter. Executive producers Gus Van Sant, John Cameron Mitchell. Editor Jonathan Caouette. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
In limited release.