Bright Lights Film Journal

Going Mental: The Travesties of Tarnation

“He’d fuck himself if he could”

We are all the stars of our own lives, but none more so than director Jonathan Caouette, who makes the metaphor literal in Tarnation. Throwing the digital equivalent of glitter at the screen, he turns his unstable childhood into a mélange of Jerry Springer confessional, electrified screensaver, and a matchless audition reel complete with stylish bleached-out colors that aspire to a fever dream. Blurring Super-8 home movies with yellowing snapshots and channel-surfing TV captures, he morphs the images through prisms and split-screen effects, with amped-up answering machine messages and variable songs (including the mawkish “Wichita Lineman”) to fill the soundtrack. After the opening twenty minutes, Tarnation devolves into a tiresome head movie, its dozen or so extended segments assembled in a thuddingly linear chronology (while a late entry investigating his father makes no impact whatsoever).

But Caouette does not use his home-movie footage to substantiate facts (which remain almost completely one-sided and self-reported by this suspiciously unreliable narrator) nor to explore the permutations of truth (as in Capturing the Friedmans). Instead, he just keeps asserting injustices — that his mother was misdiagnosed with mental illness, that she was raped before his young eyes, that she overdosed on lithium, that he experienced “extreme emotional and physical abuse by foster parents” — but documents none of this. Nor does it help to introduce text intertitles where he applies social worker lingo, like “lack of structure in his nuclear family,” and affects the third person (“Jonathan began to make plans”), perhaps as evidence for his self-diagnosis of “depersonalization” thanks to smoking joints laced with PCP and formaldehyde.

Using the camera lens as his mirror, Caouette sets up adoring close-ups of himself. He pouts. He sasses. He vomits. He flirts. He writhes in agony. When not busy recording young Jonathan’s boyfriends or his playacting performance of a junk-TV psychodrama (in dialect yet), the footage is deployed for Grand Guignol shocks about the family’s descent into mental illness. Badgering his Alzheimer’s-addled grandfather — the one who bought him the camera — he never stops shooting, but the apogee of cruelty comes in his treatment of his grandmother. First aiming for grotesquerie (“I don’t have any teeth at all!,” she cackles at one point), after the poor woman gets hospitalized with a stroke, he exploits her vulnerability by tossing a fright wig on the protesting old lady as he piles on lurid horror movie effects. Who is the sick one here?

When his family members most need his protection, he rips the scabs off their wounds and calls that honesty, though he makes no room to even mention the existence of two half-brothers or his own nine-year-old son. For all his professions of love for his mother, how can he justify the unconscionably long display of the delusional woman babbling in her brain-damaged state (especially as she has repeatedly tried to avoid his camera)? Immediately after so wantonly exposing her, Caouette films himself tenderly covering her sleeping figure, then milking sympathy — he’s afraid for his own mental health — while enjoying one final radiant closeup, bathing Tarnation‘s undoubted star in golden light.

If this film has genius, it lies in the publicity hook that rivals The Blair Witch Project: the three-figure budget, the indie glamour of sponsorship by Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell, the out-and-proud posterboy for P-Flag (though little evidence here suggests that he ever set foot in the closet). Still, viewers besotted with his a-star-is-torn family narrative will have to defend themselves against the skeptics. As one audience member succinctly put it, “He’d fuck himself if he could,” though Tarnation stands as the next best alternative.