'Tarnation' America's saddest home video

By Celeste Meiffren
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, November 24, 2004

"Tarnation" is unlike any movie I have ever seen. And I haven't quite decided if I liked it or not.

"Tarnation" is a video autobiography of the filmmaker, Jonathan Caouette. It chronicles his mother Renee's life, her struggle with mental illness and the effect that it had on Jonathan. One of these effects was his turn towards theater, art and later film. He used filmmaking as a device to cope with his breaking mother, which later became a means for creating "Tarnation."

Caouette made "Tarnation" with $218 and edited it with Apple Computer's iMovie. It is perhaps the most highly acclaimed and lowest-budget independent film made in recent history.

The story is that when Renee was an adolescent, she jumped off of her parents' roof and was paralyzed. The doctors told Renee's parents, Adolph and Rosemary, that Renee's inability to function was psychosomatic. They then decided to treat her with shock therapy for two years.

After the shock treatments, Renee found a husband and became pregnant with Jonathan. Unaware that Renee was pregnant, Jonathan's father left to get away from her parents' overbearing grasp. Renee, now with brain damage and personality disorders, was left alone to raise Jonathan.

After several violent episodes, Jonathan was taken away from his mother and thrown into foster care where he was relentlessly physically abused. He was taken out of foster care, and ended up under his grandparents' roof. He stayed there through his adolescence. During this time, Renee was continuing shock treatments.


6 out of 10

Perhaps the most devastating realization in the movie was that doctors found out too late that there was never anything wrong with Renee to begin with. Her life was ruined for no reason.

Caouette uses old home videos of himself dressed up and performing scenes from different plays or using the camera as a type of journal. Where there is no video footage of important events, he uses a visual narration with subtitles overlapping photographs.

After the point where Jonathan decided that he was going to use these videos to create "Tarnation," there was a shift in the style.

The later scenes were more stylized and the emotional moments were not as real. It was like watching reality television in that you assume that the people were only acting a certain way because they knew the camera was on. Caouette would also try to elicit certain emotional responses from his family members so that he could get it on tape. This definitely took away from the film's credibility and overall intimacy.

Ultimately, this film accomplishes its goal. It shows Caouette's unwavering love for his mother, and the hardships that people inadvertently create for themselves and the other people in their lives. It is a testament to the strong bond between a boy and his mother.

The style of this film does not fit into any specific genre or pigeonhole. It is the most personal film I have ever seen. Caouette's willingness to share his family's history and his own personal relationships was very brave and admirable.

On the same token, as an audience member, I was forced to wonder, "What makes his story so much more important than anyone else's?" But the answer is simple - he thought of it first. It certainly made me want to buy a camera. Hell, if he can somehow get people to buy tickets to watch his home movies, can't anyone?