15 June, 2005Issue 4.3Film & TVThe Arts

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Drama Queen, Victim, Publicist

Will Norman

Directed and written by Jonathan Caouette, 2003

Tarnation is a film that asks difficult questions of its own genre. Jonathan Caouette directs a piece that is ostensibly a documentary chronicling his own life and relationship with his family. This, we comfortably assume in the opening minutes, is the essential shape of the picture. Jonathan is an unusual child, an exhibitionist who from the age of eleven habitually videoed himself giving ‘testimonies’ to the camera about his emotions and feelings. In one early instance, aged eleven, Jonathan dresses up as a coquettish and distraught young woman self-consciously and melodramatically confessing how she has been beaten by her hard-drinking husband. The ‘real’ a, captions tell us, was abused regularly during his time as a foster child. The implication, then, is that when we watch Jonathan through the lens of his odd collection of home videos and snapshots, we are watching not the traumatic events themselves but rather the attempt to articulate and deal with that trauma through role-playing and dramatisation. A documentary, in other words, about how to deal with reality through the creation of fictional selves.

Jonathan Caouette, it seems, has always had a taste for performance. This is apparent not just through his confessional ‘testimonials’ but also through his self-presentation throughout the film. He disguises himself as a woman to get into gay nightclubs at the age of thirteen and also has a penchant for directing his own gory home-made horror films. He and a friend write a musical adaptation of David Lynch’s surreal, disturbing Blue Velvet for his high-school friends and Jonathan films himself miming the words to Marianne Faithful songs. His life as we discover it on the screen is a series of melodramatic, sexually charged, and violent self-dramatisations. 1 e difficulties for the audience lie in the oblique relationship between Jonathan’s own performance and the distressing story of abuse, mental illness, and dysfunction which is disclosed to us through captions and video excerpts of his troubled family. The difference between the two modes, one real and the other performed, is genuine. The style of the direction, however, serves to undermine our ability to distinguish between them. After all, Caouette makes no attempt to conceal the utterly subjective telling of the story, which continually teeters on the brink of complete self-indulgence. Among the home-movie clips he has spliced cuts from eighties pop-videos and even feature films. One particularly telling section has scenes from Roman Polanski’s horror film, Rosemary’s Baby cut with footage of Jonathan’s strange grandmother, named Rosemary. The grandmother, it must be said, has little chance to speak for herself, and even less chance of redeeming herself after her association with Polanski’s disturbing imagination.

Tarnation can be usefully contrasted with one of the most unusual American films of last year, Capturing the Friedmans. That too was built around the obsessive self-documentation of an American teenage boy as he grew into adulthood in a respectable suburb, and also dwelt on the dark secrets of family abuse and dysfunction lurking behind a veneer of normality. Capturing the Friedmans, however, was always about a search for an objective truth. Even if that truth proved ultimately unattainable, it nevertheless provided a focus and drive compelling the narrative. In this sense the film provided a paradigm for the documentary process and the assumptions which lie behind it – that a ‘real’ story exists beyond and independent from the film-making process, and that the aim of the film is to bring us as close as possible to that truth. Tarnation’s innovation, conscious or not, is to obscure for us that ‘real’ story by telling another, that of its construction and evasion through its protagonist’s performance. By the end of the film, the truth about Jonathan’s past and his mother’s mental illness becomes not only impossible to determine but also irrelevant, for the audience is caught up with other, more nebulous concerns – who is the ‘real’ Jonathan, when is he acting and when is he ‘straight’? The most disturbing implication is the suspicion that there is ultimately little difference between the two, and that Jonathan has finally succeeded in turning his life into the melodrama he always wanted. At one point we discover that as a teenager he harboured fantasies of making a movie of his life-story, starring Joni Mitchell as his mother. Tarnation, it seems, is the fulfilment of this dream, only with the actors playing themselves.

The most effective moments of Tarnation are those that are most heavily stylised. The caption telling us of Jonathan’s mother’s electroshock therapy may provoke real pity, but it is the sudden flicker of Francis Bacon’s harrowing portraits of disintegrating selves that truly unsettle. Likewise Jonathan’s ‘testimonials’ are strange enough in themselves but especially so when accompanied by a dark eighties goth soundtrack. In addition to personal documentation, this film is also a testament to the power which popular culture has held over a generation of American (and, for this viewer, British) imaginations. Caouette presents a life refracted through the lens of popular music and film (although perhaps ‘popular’ is an unfair word, as Jonathan’s punk, goth and camp glam phases were all conceived as alternative or counterculture in their time). The consequence, however, is a sense of disorientation, an identity crisis which may have relevance beyond Caouette’s own story, encompassing a generation weaned on David Lynch, MTV and Jane’s Addiction. Somehow Tarnation manages eventually to wind its way towards adulthood. The comparatively unmediated conclusion, when Jonathacn takes responsibility for his mentally incapacitated mother, produces mixed feelings. The return to the conventions of documentary is a sign that our protagonist has grown up, and discarded his narcissistic tendencies in order to care for another person. There remains nevertheless, a nagging disappointment, a persistent desire for the seductive drama of adolescent angst, which is so comforting in its indulgence and effective in masking for us the banality of genuine suffering.

Will Norman is a DPhil student in English Literature at New College, Oxford. He writes on Nabokov.