Movie Review by Dan Spiers
Starring: Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, David Sanin Paz, Rosemary Davis
Director: Jonathan Caouette
Although dysfunctional families are familiar fare for the silver screen, a mixture of 160hrs of home video footage, family photographs, and audio recordings condensed into 88 minutes of autobiographical documentary, is not.
In TARNATION, made by Jonathan Caouette, we are witness to his life. He guides us through the history of his family and in particular the adolescence of his mother, Renee, his birth and the evolution of their relationship.
This intensely personal film charts a three generational cycle of neglect, abuse and mental illness, at the heart of which lies the decision of Renee’s parents, Adolph and Rosemary, to place their daughter in mental care during the 1960’s, in which she was subjected to two years of shock therapy.
There is evidence to suggest that Renee was not mentally ill before she entered care, but she was unquestionably imbalanced after treatment. As a consequence of Renee’s frequent hospitalization, through the course of his childhood Jonathan was forced in to a series of foster homes and subjected to abuse, during which time he developed depersonalization disorder which is defined as a disconnection from the body and a constant sense of unreality.
What is impressive is how Caouette manages to evoke his own disorder through the editing of footage. Not only is Betamax and Super 8 used, but also VHS, Hi-8 and Mini DV. As a result, there is no continuity and you are acutely aware of environment. What’s more, the barrage of photographs, snippets of 70s TV and 80s pop and smatterings of audio conversations, serve to disorientate the viewer.
The content of the footage is equally instructive. As an 11 year-old boy, we see Caouette acting out the role of an abused single mother, whilst as an adult we see him questioning his grandfather regarding claims by Renee that he subjected her to physical abuse. It is shocking to see a child portray a victim of abuse so convincingly and disturbing to see a grandfather being questioned by his grandson in such a way, but both scenes are uncompromising and give an invaluable insight into the family unit.
TARNATION is a great achievement for it shows Jonathan Caouette using his video camera to escape from reality as a child and using it to come to terms with his reality as an adult. We see an identity emerge from the chaotic kaleidoscope of sight and sound that represent his adolescence, and it is of a happy, creative, gay man, in a loving relationship, who despite the impact her absence has had on his life, cares deeply about his mother.
For the filmmaker, as an act of catharsis, TARNATION was clearly worthwhile and for the audience, as an experience, it is remarkable.