Edgar Morin (codirector of Jean Rouch’s Chronicle Of A Summer) has argued that to reject those who reveal too much of themselves on camera, who court shame and immodesty, is to stand “against the emergence of truth in the world… in people’s lives.” It is our duty to witness others express themselves, no matter how indecent and embarrassing their emotional excess and pain may be.
Now we have Jonathan Caouette’s profoundly unsettling, moving and unforgettable Tarnation, a howl of a homemade autobiography that has achieved mythic proportions on the film fest circuit. While it has many notable precedents, what is immediately striking and lasting about Caouette’s desperate memoir is the intense degree of his self-exposure and the vast size and quality of the archival material on which he draws. From the age of 11 (in 1984) to the present, his life story is assembled out of hundreds of different home movies and self-portraits through confessional text, found audio, photos, and movie and TV fragments.
Tarnation is an ode to the fraught but unbreakable relationship between Caouette and his mother Renee Leblanc, a former model whose mind was nearly destroyed by the mental health system. It explores how “sick parents raise sick children” and how cycles of dysfunction might be stopped. It is also a poignant love letter to the cinema and to exhibitionism – Caouette’s survival strategies. Severely abused and affected with depersonalization disorder from an early age, he sees his own life as if a spectator to it, and Tarnation fiercely expresses this experience of drifting through a traumatic life as if in a dream.
A professional actor, Caouette has been performing for his entire life, channelling suicidal self-destruction into silver screen dreams. One of many memorable scenes involves the director at age 11 gussied up as a Southern housewife circa 1969, confessing her story of severe domestic abuse with the studied authenticity of years of Oprah viewing. Caouette also passed as a petite goth girl when he was a kid to gain entry to the local New Wave bar and its precious community of like-minded deviants who would introduce him to punk rock and underground movies.
Here we have a queer child loudly and proudly present, whose drug-fuelled preteen manifesto proclaims: “If anybody’s listening, I am gay, I’ve always been gay.”
Watching a flaming boy from small-town Texas grow up in hell through his own eyes is a wrenching emotional experience. Caouette presents himself and his mom to the world through multiplying and mutating images, always getting us up close and personal. Never has a queer life been thrust at us so rawly, aggressively screaming, “This is me, here’s my story.”
One painful scene features his mother endlessly singing to a pumpkin and laughing maniacally, while another is a joyous behind-the-scenes documentation of a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet featuring the songs of Marianne Faithfull as directed by Caouette and his then-boyfriend at their high school! When you see him tuck his mother into bed at the end, you will cry and then you will praise home movie cameras for bringing about the democratization of the cinema.
* Tarnation opens Fri, Jan 21 at the Varsity (55 Bloor St W); call (416) 961-6303.