With the relatively recent advent of the self-reflexive documentary coming to the foreground of popular cinematic culture, it’s no surprise that someone took it a step further and simply composed a documentary of his own life. Jonathan Caouette did just that in his film “Tarnation” (Wellspring). Editing Super-8 footage, old pictures, amateur film clips, phone conversations and video confessions together on nothing but Apple’s iMovie, he pieced together a film that documented the past 19 years of his life. For some, this notion would seem merely indulgent and lacking in narrative and structural creativity, seeing as how the film would in essence be a collage of real life events and happenings. However, as the tagline of the film candidly defends, “The greatest creation is the life you lead.” After seeing “Tarnation,” one would be hard pressed to deny such a claim when presented in such a private and powerful way.
“Tarnation,” as you might have guessed, is an in-depth account of Jonathan Caouette’s history. Starting with the marriage of his grandparents and the subsequent birth of his mother, Renee, the film first touches on the accident and subsequent electro-shock treatment his mother had to endure as a child, treatment that was later considered unnecessary. From this “therapy,” which greatly contributed to her development of schizophrenia, the audience is given insight into the pre-existing tragedy into which young Jonathan is born. The film then follows his poverty- and pain-stricken travels from Texas to Chicago and back. From here, the years unfold in a somewhat orderly succession of events, following Jonathan’s brief stay in a foster home, where he is subjected to horrible abuse to the transfer of care to his grandparents for the remainder of his childhood.
At this point, one might suppose the documentary is just a barrage of sad events leading to an equally depressing tragedy at the end. Fortunately, this is not the case. Caouette’s success is in portraying the full spectrum of events in his life, which, although certainly different from the common childhood, bare definite similarities to the universal comedy of adolescence. He splices in television and movie clips along with his own home movies to convey the importance that film had in his development as a person. With this knowledge, it makes perfect sense that this documentary exists in the first place. By turning the camera on himself and the pains of his past, Caouette uses the medium that had the greatest effect on him to confront the issues that had been repressed and ignored. Through this technique, which lacks neither grace nor power, “Tarnation” becomes a film of lasting strength and potential, revealing the director’s unwavering love for and inextricable connection with his mother.
In addition to this, there have been few movies that portray the intricacies of mental illness so well. Caouette, in an act of great directorial strength, doesn’t turn the camera away from his mother and her illness; he confronts it as a way to understand and accept it. This candor and honesty is analogous to the entirety of the film, requiring the audience to witness all sides of a life still being lived. “Tarnation” is a film that achieves its success through stark sincerity. It warrants a viewing, if not for the story it tells, then for the undeniable influence that it will have on documentaries in the future.
“Tarnation” open Thursday, Nov. 11 in Washington, D.C