Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (Wellspring) is a memoir composed on film—composed, you might say, over a 20-year span and then rubbed and buffed on a Macintosh computer with the program iMovie. My press kit heralds it as a revolution in the "audio-visual confessional"—which gives me, as a film critic, the heebie-jeebies. I mean, that's all we need: more exhibitionists with ready access to cameras and editing software. Probably after the 5,000th arty home-movie montage purporting to tell the story of someone's lousy childhood, I'll rue the day I called Tarnation a masterpiece.
But a masterpiece it is, of a mind-bending modern sort: This story of a 31-year-old man and his mentally-ill mother is right on the border between what shrinks call immature "acting out" and mature artistic sublimation. Caouette, the filmmaker and protagonist, weaves psychodrama shot in the middle of the madness together with revelatory stills, surreal montages of the Texas landscape, found footage, clips from such disparate but fetishistic entertainments as Rosemary's Baby and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, fantasy monologues, and stark interviews that inexorably lapse back into psychodrama.
This isn't a journalistic work—a Peeping Tom brief—like last year's squirmy Capturing the Friedmans. The home movies are heavily filtered, transformed into art objects, their subjects encouraged to turn themselves into characters in the great drama of the hero's life. But that doesn't distance them. Tarnation is a collage of pain that breaks over you like a wave. Every second you can feel the cost to Caouette of what he's showing: The sounds and the images are like a pipeline from his unconscious to the screen.
After an opening in which he shows himself and his lover, David, reacting to the news that his mother, Renee, has been rushed to the hospital after an overdose of lithium, he tells the story of his immediate family. He begins with his grandparents, Adolph and Rosemary LeBlanc, and their daughter—a lovely girl, a child model, relatively normal until she fell off a roof and was partially paralyzed for no clear physiological reason. She had shock treatments every three weeks for two years, and she was still beautiful but beginning to unravel even before her brief marriage to Jonathan's dad. Then the penniless Renee impulsively took Jonathan from Houston to Chicago, where right off the bus she was raped in front of her young son by someone who stopped to give them a ride. On the bus back to Houston, she and the boy were thrown off for disturbing the passengers. Renee was institutionalized, while Jonathan ended up in a foster home, physically and emotionally abused (he alleges) until his grandparents managed to adopt him.
Oddly, Caouette narrates Tarnation in the third-person, referring to himself throughout as "Jonathan." He also speaks of becoming more and more detached from his feelings, so that third-person storytelling feels apt. Then he shows us something uncanny: A film of himself as an 11-year-old, in makeup and a female wig, reciting a monologue by a Southern rape victim with a young son. On one level he's appalling: He's mannered, he's overacting, he keeps touching his face compulsively. But he's not overacting as 11-year-old boy, he's overacting as a 30-year-old woman and weeping and losing control as a 30-year-old woman. It's clear—to me, and obviously to him, now—that he overidentified with his mother from an early age and has always longed to live out some fantasy version of her hell. Renee didn't actually raise Jonathan—his grandparents did—and so she's never the oppressive gorgon of other monster-mother sagas. She was lost to him and is therefore an object of longing. He adores her—she's Dolly Parton, she's Mia Farrow, she's Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet—even as he hungrily documents her dissolution.
Exploitation? Debatable. Caouette sees Renee as a casualty of the mental health system—as someone who didn't start out schizoid but ended up that way after all those shock treatments and years of hospitalization. As a non-psychiatrist without a time machine, I can't verify his diagnosis (she seems pretty conventionally schizzy to me), but his empathy for her struggle is a counterweight to his vampiric urge to get her delusions on camera. We always see her through Caouette's eyes, watching helplessly as she metamorphoses from slender, doe-eyed angel to puffy, aging child-woman in pigtails and oversized glasses. It's hard to know what to feel when she moves in with Jonathan and his lover in Brooklyn. She can be such a likable mouthy broad. And then she can suddenly, without warning, begin to rail against those who've conspired to destroy her life.
On a more positive note, we see the roots of Caouette's artistic impulses: how it began with self-dramatization (he's a real drama queen); how self-dramatization runs in the family (his mother and grandmother are both a howl, the latter, especially, in her cups); and how the boy discovers underground filmmaking and gropes to find a way to act out in a strange new medium. His debt to gutbucket horror movies and musicals and David Lynch (he turned BlueVelvet into a musical in high school) and Gus van Sant's My Own Private Idaho is obvious: Van Sant even became an executive producer, as did John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But Tarnation is all by itself in its volcanic—and cathartic—blend of biography and hallucination.
I don't know where that title comes from—it's never explained—but as I watched I did think, in breathless admiration, "What in tarnation???"