Tarnation

on October 06, 2004 by Mary Colbert
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Jonathan Caouette's powerful, intensely personal documentary, "Tarnation," the surprisingly unawarded Sundance hit, is astonishing in so many ways. First, there is its financial/technological breakthrough: Rewriting low budget film history, it was made using an Apple Macintosh computer and edited with its iMovie software for $218. Far more remarkable is its profoundly intimate, disturbing and compelling ride through Caouette's autobiographical, trauma-filled emotional roller coaster, conveyed through home movies, letters, songs, phone messages, photographs, Hollywood movie clips, pop culture icons and dress-up reenactments. Assembled like a mosaic, it unravels his young yet troubled and complicated life which--even more remarkably--is ultimately an ode to love.

The self-portrait begins in 2003 with his mother's lithium overdose in his native Texas. Returning there, the (now) New York-based Caouette lays bare his wounded soul as he exposes a family legacy of mental illness, dysfunctionalism, abuse and institutional neglect. His mother, former beauty queen Renee Leblanc, is misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and subjected to shock therapy, with irrevocable effects. Among Caouette's childhood horrors were witnessing his mother's rape and, with her institutionalization, his own trauma of foster care until he is put in the custody of his grandparents--also not an idyllic situation. Caouette suffers from a condition known as depersonalization, an affliction involving feelings of detachment from one's own body and thoughts.

Caouette's escape is through the fantasy world of movies and dressing up, musical theatre and alternative gay culture. His search for identity is also a triumph of love as he moves to New York and forms a solid relationship with his partner and pledges to help his mother through a commitment to move her in with them. Bombarded throughout stylistically (with split screens, subtitles and graphics) and, more importantly, emotionally, we feel we've come through the tunnel with them. Directed and written by Jonathan Caouette. Produced by Stephen Winter. A Wellspring release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 88 min

Tags: Directed, written by Jonathan Caouette, Produced by Stephen Winter, Wellspring, Documentary
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