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With: Jonathan Caouette, Michael Cox, Adolph Davis, Rosemary Davis, Renee Leblanc, David Sanin Paz
Written by: Jonathan Caouette
Directed by: Jonathan Caouette
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 10/19/2003

Tarnation (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Couch Trip

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Using the movies as psychoanalysis is a tricky business. Sometimes itcan work, such as Brian De Palma turning his neuroses into a string ofstylish, edgy suspense flicks. Sometimes it doesn't work, such as Frenchdirector Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) flaunting her bizarresexual degradation with an air of disdain and pretentiousness.

If that line isn't fine enough, we now have the "reality show" factor to contend with. Is this filmmaker really battling his innermost demons, or does he just want to get on television?

First time filmmaker Jonathan Caouette deftly overcomes all such labels with his new film Tarnation, a surprising, shocking and genuinely compassionate look at his own life using a sampling of home movies, VHS camcorder footage, answering machine tape, pop songs, random bits of television and new digital footage. It's edited and processed through the iMovie program on Caouette's Macintosh computer, adding text and bizarre effects.

Since Caouette has delivered one of the finest gay films in ages, it's not too surprising that Gus Van Sant -- a gay "godfather" to beautiful young boys -- and John Cameron Mitchell -- creator of the ultimate gay rock opera, Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- signed on as executive producers and helped Tarnation see the light of day.

The film follows the torrid life of Caouette's mother, a child model who fell from a roof and was paralyzed for 6 months until her parents tried shock therapy. She met a man, Steve, whom she married long enough for her to get pregnant before he disappeared.

While his mother bounced back and forth between institutions, the Texas-born Caouette went through all kinds of rebellious periods, including hanging out at a gay club at age 13, disguised as a "goth girl," and smoking his first two joints without knowing that their extra ingredients, PCP and formaldehyde, would send him into a disturbed "dream state" for months on end.

Among the many startling scenes is footage of Caouette at age 11 doing a remarkably grown-up monologue -- in drag -- about an abused wife and mother.

Finally Caouette moves to New York City, his mother's health worsens and he meets his father for the first time.

Caouette uses his treasure trove of photos and footage like Jimi Hendrix uses his guitar. He slices them up, flip-flopping the images for disturbing results, smashes them together into split screens, triple-screens and quadruple-screens, tints them and distorts the sound. The faces contained within begin to look less and less human and more like howling, torturous demons.

We eventually learn that Caouette was influenced by underground movies and horror films, as well as punk music, and Tarnation -- made for a reported $218 -- betrays all of those origins. It's perhaps because of this homemade edginess that Caouette gets away with his potentially lethal dose of psychotherapy on film. Instead of sending the audience screaming from the room, Tarnation touches us with its curious, ultra-personal cautionary tale.

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