There is something vaguely terrifying about the idea of exposing both the intimate and mundane minutia of one's life and history to a faceless audience. This is despite the hazy, two-minute-noodle epoch currently exploding like an omnipresent and seemingly infinite pack of Tom-Thumbs taking much sting out of the elevation of self to diffuse and unfocused public spectacle. Insecurity succumbs to the need to exist, if only virtually, and through pretence.
That a movie like Tarnation can develop in such a social climate is a staggering exemplar of tenacity, revealed through the brutal honesty of intense self-reflection. This reflection is of Jonathan Caouette, and the mirror is his camera. Starting at age eleven, Caouette began filming his tumultuous existence for a project that would ultimately see its fruition only twenty years later.
Tarnation is a dossier of documentary footage, sound clips, snapshots and dramatic re-enactments, detailing the heartbreaking story of a family dissolved by abuse, narcotics and ignorance. The film's main line is revealed, after an introductory ten minutes as ascendant as the film is low-budget (costing only $218), when supporting text details the events that lead to Caouette's mother, Renee, slipping into severe mental disorder. With a resigned persistence, Caouette's attempts to record his mother's begrudging and slow-to-surface exorcism of her demons results in a therapeutic purging of the filmmaker's own knots of discord. Despite a personal history of abuse, manifesting in traces of nihilism and a number of suicide attempts, it was Caouette's strength to overcome, and his courage in trying to help his mother throughout and despite his own pain, that makes this film truly affecting.
Tarnation was released in 2003, so it isn't coming to a big-screen near you. Don't, however, let this stop you; Tarnation is well worth the effort.