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TarnationReview - Tarnation
DVD
by Jonathan Caoette
Wellspring, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 11th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 32)

Tarnation is a remarkable documentary by Jonathan Caoette about the life of his mother, Renee, and his relationship with her. His mother fell off the roof of the family home when she was 12, and she experienced paralysis in her legs as a result. For some reason, doctors treated her with electroconvulsive shocks for two years and this started her life as a mental patient. Yet when she was a young woman, she married briefly, and got pregnant, although her husband left her before he ever knew that he would be a father. Her son Jonathan grew up with his mother and grandparents in Texas, and judging from what we see of all of them, it was a tumultuous experience.

The film starts with Jonathan as an adult, living in New York City with a boyfriend, learning that his mother has overdosed on lithium. He cries in his boyfriend's arms and resolves to return to Texas to help his mother. Then we learn the whole family story and about many of the drama that has gone on in Renee and Jonathan's lives. Finally, we return to the start, with Jonathan in Texas, helping his brain-damaged mother and questioning his grandfather. It is a simple structure for a film, and the facts it relates are powerful enough on their own to move the viewer. However, what makes this such a memorable film is the way that Caoette tells the story.

One of the initial scenes of Jonathan learning of his mother's overdose is confusing for the viewer because it is obviously staged, and so we wonder whether this is really a documentary. In the director's commentary, Caoette explains that he felt that he needed to reenact these critical events to set up the story. However, it also lends the film a dramatic feel that brackets the notion of truth, and makes the viewer unsure how much of the rest of the film tells the exact truth, and at least raises the question of how much of the truth we can discover when delving into family history.

One of the tensions of the film comes from the fact that Caoette uses a great deal of old Super 8 footage, old videos he made, old photos, and old recorded audiotapes. This would seem to root the story in fact and reality. Yet Caoette makes the viewer's experience much more complicated by including some scenes from old movies, videos from his childhood he made of himself acting as characters of his own invention, horror movies he made as a teenager, scenes of his family acting in his own movies, and his commentary reveals that some of the images representing his childhood in foster homes is actually of current friends and his own young son. What's more, he also reveals in his commentary that he has manipulated the colors and textures of images to suit his purposes, and indeed much of this is obvious because of his use of the multiplication of images on the screen, using computer programs, which turn out to be iMovie and Abobe Aftereffects. So when we see Renee telling stories about Elizabeth Taylor, we are not sure whether she is acting or psychotic, and similarly, when Adolf, Jonathan's grandfather, denies that Renee is mentally ill, it is hard to tell if he is just lying or he is in deep denial. Similarly, when Renee makes accusations that she was abused as a child, it is impossible to know whether she really believes what she is saying, and whether she is telling the truth.

Since there is no voice-over in the film, the main source of authority comes from script on the screen relating facts to the viewer. This is another way in which Tarnation differs from a traditional documentary. Much of the film is edited with very swift cutting from image to image, in the style of many music videos, and Caoette uses songs from indie bands such as Low, Magnetic Fields, Cocteau Twins, and Lisa Germano to structure many scenes. As viewers, we are drawn in very quickly by the astonishing material, trying to work out what is happening, and transfixed by the images we see. The music and editing really help to make the viewing experience compelling.

Ultimately, Caoette's story suggests the terrible damage caused by the use of electroshock treatment on a young girl and the repercussions over the years on the rest of her family. It shows a family that may be as much of a cause of mental illness as a victim of it, and we see Jonathan come to terms with his life as it is, and his family as it was. As a young gay teenager, filmmaker and actor, he had a remarkable intensity that persists to this day. Tarnation is certainly one of the most striking films about mental illness made in the last decade, comparable yet very different from Julien Donkey Boy (reviewed in Metapsychology June 2005). It raises many questions, not just about mental illness but also about the ethics and nature of documentary filmmaking, but it does so while remaining compelling viewing and very moving. Highly recommended.

 

2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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