Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother – a mixture of snapshots, Super-8, answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, and more – culled from 19 years of his life. 

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A true original.

Tarnation is a hybrid between performance and real life, a kind of 'stream of consciousness' video diary that faces off with traditional non-fiction storytelling, aggressively challenging the very basis of what defines a documentary. Looking at the non-fiction landscape in cinemas right now – with the plethora of agit-prop and narrative portrait films making their way onto the big screen – Tarnation is unconventional to say the least. It is also a damn fine movie.

compelling, moving, poetic and powerful



For the last twenty of his thirty-one years Jonathan Caouette has been documenting his life in one way or another via photographs, Super 8 and video home movies, writing and performance. He brings all of these elements to bear on his fraught family story which provides the foundations of the film. Raised in Texas by his grandparents Caouette slowly introduces the 'character' of his mother Renee into the piece, who was mostly absent from his early years. A strikingly beautiful, incandescent woman, Renee was put into psychiatric institutions by her parents in her teens after being diagnosed with various mental illnesses. Trapped in a cycle of drug use and physical abuse, Renee never fully recovered even after giving birth to her son Jonathan in 1972.

Tarnation is in effect Caouette's 'love letter' to his mum, where he uncovers the truth behind her tortured existence and reconciles the pain he has with his own.On the surface Tarnation appears very lurid and 'white trash' and certainly Caouette doesn't shy away from revealing the frayed edges of his own and his family's dysfunctional existence. It might be easy then to write Tarnation off as a crass, Jerry Springer-style exercise in airing a disenfranchised family's dirty laundry in public. (Certainly that is where a similar doc, Just, Melvin (2000) took us when the incensed filmmaker confronts his tyrannical, abusive grandfather in the film's spectacular showdown). But it's nothing like it. Whether or not you agree with Caouette's decision to make it there is no denying that Tarnation is compelling, moving, poetic and powerful. It isn't merely a family album filled with grimaces instead of smiles, and it also transcends being an hysterical exercise in cathartic personal storytelling, as Just, Melvin turned out to be.

Watching Tarnation you get the overwhelming sense that for Caouette, documenting his life has been a means of survival. It is a compulsion that has enabled him to validate an existence where nobody has. The camera is Caouette's respiratory system, his heart and lungs, enabling him to live and breathe through a life mostly filled with pain and not very much beauty. These are the types of films I crave from cinema: personal, courageous, perverse and groundbreaking.