Tarnation

Look at me, I’m so fucked up! Everybody! LOOK how fucked up I am!
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2003
Director: 
Jonathan Caouette
Starring: 
Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, Rosemary Davis, Adolph Davis
The Setup: 
Long-form photo and audio montage about the narrator and his schizophrenic mother.
Discussion: 

I had heard about this film for some time, and generally recall when it was out and the small controversy it created. Then all of a sudden, within the space of a few weeks, a few different people wrote and asked if I had seen it, so I decided it was about time. Plus I was bored with pretty much everything else I’d been watching, and documentaries seemed like an interesting departure.

So the story is that Jonathan Caouette assembled all this from his home movies, answering machine messages, family photos, etc. He sent a video of himself acting at age 11 [included later] to John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig fame when he was casting Shortbus, and Mitchell encouraged him to whip this film into shape, and also came on board as executive producer, along with Gus Van Sant. Mitchell also, praise him, got Caouette to cut the film down from about 2 ½ hours to the 90 minutes it is now. Given the amount of people on IMDb who were unable to make to the end [“How long did you make it?” is the title of a discussion thread] this was a wise choice. So okay, the movie itself!

The credits play as we are introduced to the major figures. Jonathan himself, his mother, Renee LeBlanc, and his grandparents, Rosemary and Adolph Davis. One of the most off-putting things happens right up front, as we have a vignette title “New York City, March 2003,” where Jonathan pretends to wake up after sleeping nude on the couch [Please be aware that gay people must always be depicted as nude or shirtless. Thank you]. His lover pretends to wake him up, and Jonathan says “I had the weirdest dream. It was about my mother.” After a bit, we have Jonathan pretending to call about his hospitalized mother, who took a lithium overdose. The camera is RIGHT in Jonathan’s face as he weeps, or pretends to weep [there may not be a difference at this point], and the whole sequence is incredibly alienating, as either he’s taping his most intimate moments and taping it to capture the DRAMA of it all, or he’s FAKING his most intimate moments. Let it also be said that the evidence here offered in these clips would not support a career as an actor, and you’re at the very beginning of the movie, thinking “Holy shit, is the entire movie going to be like this?” Well simmer down, Sally, because it starts to get better now.

We have footage of Caouette on a train as the credits play, the whole idea that we’re going backwards into memory. This [and the entire movie] is made up of music, home movies, film and TV footage, family photos, and on-screen titles, and it’s important to understand that THERE IS NO DRAMATIC NARRATIVE. There’s no voiceover, instead there are just titles on the screen as music and video play, which I found to be quite effective, but obviously bothers others. We get the story of Jonathan’s mother, Renee. She was an 11-year-old in Texas when a visiting scout discovered her and turned her into a regional child star, appearing in ads, at events, and in a television commercial. At age 12 she fell off the roof, and was paralyzed. Her parents, Rosemary and Adolph, began to think perhaps her paralysis was faked. A neighbor mentions shock treatments, and the parents sign Renee right up, giving her shock treatment twice a week for two years. During this time, the narration says, Renee was still “a beauty,” although I’m confused as to whether that means she continued to be a star. When she was an older teen, she met this fellow, married, became pregnant with Jonathan. The husband freaked and left her. She was treated several times in psychiatric hospitals during this time [no info on how she handled having an infant and being hospitalized], and, we are told, records indicate that there was nothing initially wrong with her—i.e. the shock treatments themselves may have caused her mental illness. Renee was out for a bit when she was raped in front of Jonathan, age two, and he was sent to foster care while she was in and out of jail and hospitals. Jonathan claims that he was tied up and beaten while in foster care, from the ages of 2 to 4. Then Renee is committed, and Jonathan’s grandparents get custody of him and raise him.

Now, it was about the time we heard that Renee was raped in front of Jonathan that I started to ask myself: “Wait a minute—how do we really KNOW any of this?” The thing is, you don’t. The movie just makes assertions, and you have no way of verifying any of it. NO evidence of any kind is presented. Since the narration is delivered via on-screen text, you also have no way of studying a person’s body language and tone of voice and forming your own intuitive feeling. Nope, you just have to take Caouette’s word for everything.

So at age 11 Jonathan has access to a video camera and it seems from about this time he started taping every waking moment of himself and everyone around him. But the first thing is this apparently improvised monologue he tapes in which he plays a trashy girl with all sorts of trashy problems—drugs, pregnancy, the usual bit—and ends with her as an abused wife, face down on a bed as her husband put a gun to her temple and says “I’ll kill you, bitch.” This is really quite an amazing piece of footage, for several reasons: One, it’s amazing this kid has the presence and consistency, at age 11, to improvise this long, quite detailed and quite accurate monologue. Two, where did he hear or come into contact with these kinds of stories at age 11? Three, why did he find these stories so fascinating and how did he sense the dark humor in them at that age? But as we’ll continue to see, he had a different life than you or me.

We meet Jonathan again around age 14 when he has a feminine haircut with a large, bleached wave in the front. We have some footage of his grandmother Rosemary, indicating that she’s no pillar of sanity herself. She also has about two teeth left, one to the far left of her mouth, the other to the far right. So in his later teens, Jonathan’s grandparents start hospitalizing HIM. He says that in the hospital he befriended a drug dealer who gave him two joints, which he smoked in quick succession, which we laced with PCP and formaldehyde. He says “from that day on Jonathan couldn’t concentrate and felt as though he were living in a dream.” He has: Depersonalization Disorder! Which is basically what I just described: he feels like he’s living in a movie of his life rather than living his life.

At the age of 13 he starts going to gay clubs, getting in by posing as a goth girl. No word on what everyone wants to know: when he became sexually active and what that was like. He gets friends who introduce him to underground cinema and indie music. He makes his own little videos, and in here is a montage of his own videos mixed in with the television and movies of the time, which was quite a trip down memory lane for me, as he was growing up pretty much at exactly the same time I was. One of the things he included was the opening theme song to this kids’ show “ZOOM!” [sample lyrics: “We’re gonna zoom, zoom, zoom-ah-zoom. We’re gonna zoom-ah, zoom-ah, zoom-ah-zoom”] which—wow, how could I have known it was THAT all-round awful when just a child? Soon we find out that Jonathan is acting out in all sorts of ways, from breaking furniture to weekly suicide attempts, although we’ve been given no specific information about what is really behind it all or what’s so wrong with his life. As far as we can see, he has friends and is having fun. Between him, his grandparents and his mother’s occasional visits, the whole place sure looks like a house full o’ loonies, but we aren’t supplied with specifics of what was going on—notably, his experience growing up gay in what looks like Rural Texas. In fact, we really don’t know anything about his town or his daily life at all.

We fast forward to when he’s about 20, has long hair, and soon after moves to New York, where he gets acting gigs and makes student films. His mother visits him in New York and we are told that they “connect as never before.” In here his mother casually mentions her other son and you’re like—

—WAIT A MINUTE, SHE HAD A WHOLE OTHER SON WE’VE NEVER HEARD ABOUT?—

Well, apparently, and that’s the last we’ll hear about him, so don’t look forward to it. In here is when his mother has her lithium overdose. Jonathan returns to Texas where he finds his mother living with her father [Rosemary has died] and the house is a mess and both of them are off their rocker. His mother had earlier claimed that her father abused her, and now Jonathan starts pressing him for answers. He doesn’t get any. Around here the adult Jonathan say that everyone says he looks so worried and troubled all the time—but all we’ve seen is him appearing quite happy and carefree in his apartment with his mother and boyfriend. The movie ends, unfortunately, with more transparently phony sequences: One is a painfully staged attempt at one of the video monologues he used to make as a child, obviously created just to wind up this film. Then Jonathan goes out to his mother, asleep on the couch, and pretends to fall asleep [in a horribly awkward position], face near hers. After a thematically-resonant Christian radio broadcast, the movie ends.
< < < SPOILERS END

There are many things to say. The first is that, regardless of whether you believe Caouette or think he’s massively narcissistic [as many do, it’s the main criticism directed against this film], as a film, it’s still a remarkable achievement. He has essentially made a 90-minute photo and music montage to tell a story, and I think it’s quite a feat that it works, and works so well. His decision not to have voice-over is excellent, as it lets him continue to play atmosphere-setting music in the background, and leaves you the viewer free to settle into a hypnotic state and just let it all wash over you. At times it does seem as though he has created a unique biographical form, and it’s really just an amazing work of art.

As for the story and figures therein… well, we just have to take Caouette at his word. At first I was aware of things that we have no way of verifying. Then there are the vague statements. Then there is the abuse he is said to recall… from the time when he is three years old. Then there’s the sections and topics left out—such as that he’s suicidal as a teenager, but we never find out why. It’s just his depression and history and screwed-up family. Then he’s living in New York with his boyfriend and there’s a huge wall of CDs and DVDs, and then when I started to think: What is he living on? What’s his income? Then there’s things like how he says everyone says he looks so worried, yet all we’ve seen is him appearing happy and well-adjusted. So I finished the film not really sure I could believe a word of it, and wondering more about Caouette as a person than his story. But I guess this is part and parcel with “new autobiographical forms”—they can be necessarily subjective and one-sided. Although it does make one reflect that if this were a more traditional documentary, we would likely have more objectivity and verifiable information.

I found it very interesting and I’m glad I watched it… but ultimately I don’t really believe it. We all know that person whose narcissism takes the form of bewailing how very screwed up THEY are and how EVERYTHING has gone wrong for them and how THEY have it harder than anyone and won’t you just look at THEM and THEY need special consideration because THEY have had such tough circumstances. Keep in mind that strictly speaking, ‘narcissism’ means self-centeredness, which can also take the form of how AWFUL you are, in addition to how great you are. A lot of Caouette’s stories have that “And then THIS awful thing happened, and then THAT awful thing happened… and that’s why I’m so screwed up now and need extra-special treatment and attention…” quality that, if this were a person you were talking to in person, might have you noting the nearest lighted exit. Keep in mind, the nearest exit might be behind you.

Nevertheless, that’s what a subjective, personalized autobiography is all about, and you just have to take it for what it is. It does leave you with enough information—or glaring absence of information—to make your own decision, and that’s a lot of the fun of documentaries, in my opinion. If you like good family gossip, especially when it involves people with severe mental illness, I say go for it.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s definitely very interesting and will spark conversation.

Comments

I just watched this and had another take on the "other son". Renee said "My children are Jonathan and David." David was the name of Jonathan's boyfriend, so I thought she was saying that she had accepted David so fully and he was so good to her that she considered him her child also. But, the poor lady was crazy, so, I don't know, maybe she really thought that she had 2 sons who lived together and slept in the same bed and had bizarre public displays of affection. She also said several times that Elizabeth Taylor was her mother and I couldn't figure out if she really thought that or was just being silly. Or maybe both.
Another (and, I believe, much more satisfying) documentary about forgiving your nutty mom (and others) is "Alma". I recommend this fully for it's wackiness and shock value, and sweetness, in a weird way.