By: Addison Wylie
Many people use different mediums to emote and use as therapy. Some people write, some people paint or sculpt, but for filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, he collected every picture, home movie, and video diary he has ever had and made a movie. Tarnation made me feel an array of different emotions; empathy, sympathy, anger, sadness. Tarnation is the first film in a while where I felt like I was part of Caouette’s family for 90 minutes and he does this without using any 3-D technology or winking towards the camera; just using raw, authentic emotion. As soon as the credits started rolling, the film stuck with me. I had a hard time getting to sleep because I kept thinking about the physical and emotional abuse that Caouette and his mother had gone through. Finally, it hit me that I should write a review about this film, use this medium as therapy. This is one of the many things on a never-ending list that I marvelled about Tarnation.
Jonathan Caouette has had an extremely rough past. A past that includes child abuse, addiction, and desertion. We follow him as he grows up in an unstable household. His mother, Renee, has a number of mental illnesses due to falling off a roof when she was young. Saying and believing she was paralyzed after the fall, Renee’s mother and father begin shock treatments on her which may or may not make matters worse. We witness Jonathan’s detached teenage years as he experiments with drugs and different lifestyles. Its during these years where Jonathan starts to attend gay clubs and starts to grow more fond of a gay lifestyle. As he proceeds to grow up, whether Caouette is happy or sad, he still wrestles with his relationship with his mother. He wants to help Renee but will Renee want any help?
This is, by far, the most personal film I’ve seen in my life. As stated before, the film is made up of video clips and photographs that Caouette has kept all his life. By putting these snippets on display, Caouette has no problem allowing people into his life. With this type of film, where you want an audience to see every detail of a broken past and an unbalanced family, a director has to have that kind of vulnerability and comfort level to show that he isn’t afraid of anything and Jonathan definitely has all those characteristics. Not only is he the director and one of the main focus points in this documentary, but Jonathan also plays the role as the editor. Jonathan has edited the film all on the iMovie program. For those not familiar with the program, it’s a bare-bones editing software found on Apple computers. As much as the program is a stepping stone for editors, the program is extremely limited in regards to transitions and adding effects onto video clips. What Caouette does with it is phenomenal. As an editor, I was in awe throughout the film with my mouth agape the entire time. By using title cards when necessary and using a variety of editing methods, Caouette takes us inside his head and the audience feels what it was really like to be feeling all the emotions Jonathan was feeling at that specific age and might be still feeling. Clips of Jonathan screaming in the bathroom as a boy, as well as clips of him crying are edited in such a passionate way that you can’t help but feel a lump in your throat. As well, Caouette shows young filmmakers what one can do with limited resources. The result is revolutionary.
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Not only is the editing fantastic, but the clips Jonathan chooses to showcase can nail emotions dead on. There are some scenes that, I’m guessing, were reenacted but they were very subtle and added to the film’s structure. Additionally, there are strong directorial choices to have clips not cut away. The clips show you the rawness and authenticity of Caouette’s life. For instance, a clip of Jonathan’s mother at an older age in a very perplexed state offers insight as to how oblivious Renee’s parents were to her mindset. In the clip, we see Renee dance around holding a pumpkin while singing La Cucaracha but substituting the word “Cucaracha” for the words “Pumpkin” and “Doll’s Head”. While she dances, Renee’s father sits in the background reading, what looks to be, bills and ignoring Renee as if everything is fine. When Jonathan confronts his grandfather to figure out why his mother is in this unbalanced state, he gets very anxious. When Jonathan tells his grandfather of what Renee is telling him about how her parents treated her, he walks away. A sequence that leaves you feeling perturbed. There’s another clip that showcases Jonathan at age 11 performing a monologue as a woman who has been a victim to domestic abuse. There are a few cuts on this clip but the cuts serve purpose to the film’s pace. Nevertheless, that unforgettable eeriness is still in tact. In Tarnation, a lot of things are left open which adds to the haunting atmosphere Caouette provides.
Jonathan Caouette has made an extremely personal film that is going to go down as an incredible viewing experience. I can see some people turning off the film, not because they find the film bad, but that the subject matter might be too much for them. However, I found the film to be well made, extremely well edited, emotionally distressing at times but emotionally uplifting at others and, all around, Caouette had his passionate heart in the right place throughout this project. The film never feels fake or exploitive. Tarnation is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.