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Damaged lives, unbroken bond

Jonathan Caouette's brave 'Tarnation' upends the documentary status quo.

September 12, 2004|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

This fall, the stream of politically pointed documentaries flowing into theaters won't be subsiding. There's a John Kerry biography ("Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry"), a behind-the-scenes look at anti-globalism pranksters ("The Yes Men"), and a film about the gay marriage debate ("Tying the Knot"). Even that lightning rod of '70s controversy, Patty Hearst, is revisited ("Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst").

But the personal politics in one film in particular has the potential to shake up the notion of what a nonfiction movie can do. Jonathan Caouette's documentary "Tarnation" is 88 minutes long, culled from 160 hours of personal footage shot over 20 years of the filmmaker's intensely sad, intensely exhilarating life. The extraordinary achievement of Caouette's torrential movie, though, is that it feels like he's downloaded all 160 hours into your brain. The result, an adventurous meditation along the blurring boundaries of conscious and subconscious life, amounts to some of the highest highs and lowest lows any documentary -- or for that matter, maybe any movie -- is likely to provide in the way of emotion all year.

The shapes, figures, sounds and words that make up Caouette's memory overload are a life filled with mental disorder, unconditional love, pop culture obsession and family horror. A few years ago an unfinished version of "Tarnation" was part of an audition tape Caouette sent John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). In what may go down as one of the most fortuitous encouragements in independent film history, Mitchell told Caouette he needed to finish what he'd started. A few accolades later -- including Sundance acclaim and a best documentary award at the Los Angeles Film Festival -- "Tarnation" is attracting a fan base faster than the ever-multiplying images in Caouette's kaleidoscopic debut.

Like most bluntly honest works of personal expression, "Tarnation" is about the unknowingness of beginnings and endings, in this case when you can't trust your own mind. There are the facts, spelled out in plainly written, superimposed text that is a stark contrast to the jagged palette of manipulated visuals: Caouette was born in Houston to a beautiful, energetic woman, Renee LeBlanc, whose history of shock treatments for misdiagnosed mental health concerns have left her hopelessly damaged. Caouette went into the foster care system, where he was abused. Eventually raised by his grandparents -- whose harsh, strange, God-fearing lives Caouette began filming at age 11 along with his own self-confessional monologues and homemade movies -- Caouette grew into an embittered, art-loving, flamboyant young man with a chronic need to flee his existence, whether through old movies, rock operas, gay subculture or, eventually, a move to New York. Between his hard-won adjustments to adult life and his mother's revolving-door world of hospitalizations, the two reunited to form an unbreakable bond.

"Tarnation" is remarkable also because it carries a lifetime of hurt and derangement and ecstasy and warmth in a package that cost Caouette $218.32. That isn't the accumulated budget of videotape, cameras and film reels over the years. It's the result of molding, kneading, mixing and crafting the finished film solely on Apple's rudimentary iMovie software, the latest contribution to a democratization of the costliest of art forms.

It's also the kind of marketable detail of do-it-yourselfness befitting the tale of a solitary filmmaker working through his demons. Film has routinely been a collaborative medium, and it may be that this kind of accessible technology will influence a nation of loners to shun society and merge with the desktop. But it takes only one viewing of "Tarnation" -- with its crazy-quilt transcendence -- to see that Caouette is no willing artistic hermit: He's been feverishly collaborating with sanity and madness, art and beauty, myth and reality, heaven and hell, all his life. Now, blessedly, we all get to join in.

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