Tarnation (2003): Add it to your Netflix queue today

by Olivia Scheck

When Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell began casting his follow up film, Shortbus, members of the gay dramarati flocked. Hoping to set himself apart from the crowd, Jonathan Caouette supplemented his headshot and resume with a gritty montage of dramatic clips, including a drag impersonation of his mother (performed when he was only fifteen, inspired by Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman) and naked footage of himself with boyfriend, David. While this unorthodox film reel did not land Caouette a role in Mitchell’s film, it did earn him several meetings with the director. “We both knew I wasn’t right for the part, but he kept calling me back to meet with him,” Caouette explained in a Q and A at Yale University in 2006. What caught Mitchell’s eye was Caouette’s unique style of editing – a whirlwind of picture and sound, oscillating between the serenity of suburban life and the cacophony of fucked up circumstances that underlie it. Moreover, Mitchell was amazed by the electronic archive that Caouette had compiled throughout his life – everything from B-horror films he made with friends at age 11 to super-8 footage of his delusional grandmother and old voicemail recordings. Unsure of what else to do with it, Mitchell began screening the reel obsessively to friends and colleagues.

Simultaneously, at his Brooklyn apartment, Caouette was busily collaging together recordings of his life to songs by Nick Drake. He was doing this at the prompting of friends who had seen the original montage and with the goal of submitting it to the MIX Film Festival for experimental films by gay directors. The hitch was that the deadline was only two weeks away, and his editing software was a copy of imovie that came with his computer. So, Caouette took leave from his night job as a doorman and embarked on a caffeine binge to compress his life and more than twenty years of footage into a feature film. It would end up taking only three and a half weeks.


What resulted was the first cut of his first feature length film, Tarnation – the heart wrenching, highly disturbing but ultimately inspiring story of Caouette’s relationship with his mother, Renee. Renee was a Texan beauty who had a successful career as a child actor in commercials before falling off the roof of her suburban home as a teenager. She became convinced that she was paralyzed from the waist down, but after finding nothing physically wrong with her, doctors deemed the disorder psychosomatic and subjected her to repeated sessions of shock therapy. As the “treatments” continued, Renee sank deeper into psychosis, which included paranoid delusions and erratic behavior. But she remained beautiful and, during one of the few periods when she was not confined to an insane asylum, married. It was during this union that Jonathan was conceived, though Jonathan’s father abandoned Renee sometime before Jonathan’s birth.

To tell this part of the story, Caouette relies on cheerfully ordinary, family photographs from his mother’s childhood. Over them, he superimposes the sad facts of her life through simple, childlike text. This cinematic approach achieved two aims, says Caouette: it accommodated his desire to have the film look, at times, like a “wedding video” (a theme that was both appropriately ironic and unavoidable since he would be editing on imovie) and it alleviated the concern that Caouette would seem completely self-obsessed, as it might have had he provided a voiceover. Still, this allegation has been leveled by several critics.

Some of the films most amusing moments come during a period of Jonathan’s life, when he is obsessed with David Lynch. He and a friend put on a musical version of Blue Velvet at their high school, and Jonathan develops delusions that he and Lynch will one day collaborate on a project involving the cast of the 80’s TV show ZOOM.

Despite having missed the deadline, Tarnation was accepted into the MIX Film Festival (it seems one of the producers was a friend of John Cameron Mitchell, had seen the film reel, and insisted they bend the rules), where it opened to mixed reviews. Some critics took issue with its epic length (around three hours) and others with its surrealist, fictional ending in which Jonathan is shot by his grandfather – a choice later described as an insecure attempt to distance himself from the film. In its present form, however (under two hours, sin experimental ending), Tarnation is nothing short of revolutionary – with visuals more captivating than a Pink Floyd laser light show, and an emotional punch that’ll leave your stomach in your throat. Made for around $200, Tarnation provides a deeply intimate and utterly original experience that you’d be hard pressed to find in mainstream cinema.

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