The first person to appear on screen in Jonathan Caouette’s documentary, Tarnation, is a mad-looking middle-aged woman with thick dark hair and a frighteningly handsome face. She grins, bobs up and down like a toddler, and warbles, in a pretend-childish voice, the old Sunday school song: “This little light of mine / I’m gonna make it shine!”
A man enters a New York apartment and finds his lover asleep face-down on the couch. The sleeper wakes, stupefied: “Oh – I was having the weirdest dream. About my mother.” “Was it a nightmare?” asks the home-comer affectionately. The man on the couch hardly needs to answer. If the disturbed woman he has already shown us is his mother, how could his dream of her be anything else?
The mother’s name is Renee. She is Caouette’s passion, the great burden of his life – and perhaps, if such things be, his muse. When he hears that she has taken a lithium overdose in his home state of Texas he heads south, drawing us with him into the extraordinary maelstrom of his childhood memories. He dives into the story at the point where his mother’s parents, Rosemary and Adolph, meet. The screen begins to pullulate with black and white images of a 1950s wedding. For the first of many times in the movie’s 88 crammed minutes, we get the panicky sense of losing our grip on what the fracturing images are trying to add up to. But Caouette holds the seething chaos together by laying across it, in subtitles, a cursory narrative as blunt and unmodulated as a fairytale: “One day, in a small Texas town, a very good man met a very good woman …”
The spooky story presses hard against the mysteriously elliptical subtitles. Renee was born, life was good, everyone was happy. The girl’s beauty was so remarkable that she was scouted by a New York photographer who chanced to visit the town, and at the age of 11 she became “a very famous regional model”. But as she entered her teens, everything in her life became sad”. She “fell” off a roof. No lasting injury could be found, but she was paralysed. Believing the paralysis was “in her head”, her parents subjected her to many bouts of electric shock therapy. “All throughout her treatment,” state the subtitles with odd but telling emphasis, “Renee remained a beauty.”
She got married. But by the time she gave birth to Jonathan, her husband “not knowing she was pregnant, and unable to deal with her family, had already left town”.
So the little boy was at the mercy of an unstable mother whose beauty accorded dangerously with the requirements of the era: with her shining pale eyes, huge mouth and mane of straight dark hair, she was a cliche off a record cover. Her travels were violent, her friends dealt drugs, she was in and out of psych hospitals and jails. The boy was put into foster care, where he was brutalised, then into the custody of his grandparents. Then they adopted him.
“Everything in Tarnation,” writes Caouette in his production notes, “is true.” I’m not about to open that can of worms. But his aim is certainly to create a truth, to sculpt one by scooping up and manipulating the mass of raw material he has been producing since he was old enough to pick up a video camera – and even before that, for his mother and his grandparents had recorded his babyish voice and photographed and filmed him countless times since he arrived in this world, and it seems that in this warped Houston family nothing, nothing was ever thrown away.
I have often wondered why cinema so rarely makes full use of what it can do better than any other art form except perhaps music: recreate the mind’s random movements, its swooping back and forth in time, its fleeting connections and smashes, its lightning recoveries. Caouette is fearless here. He hauls us into his psyche, a place where no one would want to be unless they knew they could get back out. He has no shame, no inhibition; and his mad bravery in the editing suite is awesome.
At 11 (the exact age, it strikes me, at which his mother was first publicly taken up for her beauty) Jonathan borrowed a video camera from a neighbour and began to tape his own weird invented monologues. In the first one that he cuts into Tarnation the child – wearing a housewife’s head scarf, missing a front tooth and fiddling neurotically with his thick blond forelock – confronts the lens with a kind of sleazy boldness. He plays a woman who would put Tennessee Williams’s most grotesquely jittering creations in the shade. He starts out ironic, even comic, but the tale of marital degradation he’s spinning soon convinces him to the point where he begins to sob. “I got out the gun one night,” he chokes, “and blew his ass away.” You want to laugh, but the boy’s body language is too terrifying. You fear he is already damaged beyond redemption.
The film, as it follows the childhood and distorted young manhood of Caouette, is a delirious, sometimes wildly beautiful mix (with music) of grabs from horror features and TV shows, student films, commercials and home movies. It’s a hallucination composed of what one of its producers calls “raw mind tissue”. There were times when Renee, even in her pathos, scraped on my nerves unbearably, and when the adult Caouette, with his posturing and sulky fuck-me moues, reminded me of every flamboyant gay party animal I have ever wanted to shake until his teeth rattled.
Yet Tarnation has a firm coherence. He got it down from three hours to 88 minutes, a stunning coup of self-discipline. He shapes the whole crazily veering and plunging story into a curve of beauty and meaning. He needs us to understand it, and we can. In the final scene I found myself gazing at him and his sleeping mother with tenderness and pity, and more surprisingly with admiration – calm feelings that I never expected such a highly worked and histrionic movie could arouse in a puritanical heart.
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