Tarnation Review

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Following a fall, Texan child model Renee LeBlanc endured 200 bouts of electroshock therapy that plunged her into mental illness - an illness that also shaped the destiny of her son, Jonathan, who was forced to confront his own instability and homosexuality.


The diaristic documentary, it appears, is the latest substitute for the psychiatrist's couch. Yet, even if you've witnessed the Friedman family publicly tear itself apart in Capturing The Friedmans or Nathaniel Kahn exorcise the ghost of his neglectful father in My Architect, nothing can prepare you for the raw emotion on display in Jonathan Caouette's excoriating memoir of a life both blighted and enriched by mental illness and domestic dysfunction.

This is clearly the outpouring of someone whose entire existence has been a bizarre sort of pre-production. Throughout his life, Caouette squirrelled away home movies, answerphone tapes, letters, telegrams, photos and pop-culture clips, which he combined to produce a cinematic form of sampling that would help him come to terms with the traumas he's experienced - and those he's terrified he's still likely to encounter.

Made for just $218.32 and edited with the free iMovie software that came with Caouette's Apple Mac, this is clearly a landmark in the DIY democratisation of filmmaking. But it's also a key moment in the history of American avant-garde, as it brings a truly personal vision to a mainstream audience used only to seeing imitations of life.

Some will be irritated by the miasma of overlapping wipes, dissolves, split-screens, multiple planes and intricate montages - not to mention the saturated colours and cacophonous soundtrack. But how else could someone suffering from both depersonalisation disorder and an addiction to exhibitionism possibly express himself?

Tarnation may be the natural artistic culmination for a lonely boy who filmed himself enacting melodramatic drag scenes at 11, who lured neighbourhood kids into starring in 8mm shockers like The Ankle Slasher and whose high-school highlight was a lip-synched musical rendition of Blue Velvet. But it's also a painfully sad combination of confession and accusation that occasionally comes as close to self-pity as it does self-indulgence. Caouette laments his mother's woes, but also blames her for bestowing the legacy of such misery on him. Consequently, for all the courage and ingenuity of this extraordinary film, it's clear that Caouette has actually resolved few issues and that his life is still very much a work in progress.

Visually audacious and emotionally wrenching, this is never an easy watch. But its candour, intricacy, affection and occasional histrionics make for compelling viewing.