|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Jonathan Caouette, 2004, USA, 88 mins
Cast: Jonathan Caouette
Tarnation has a unique selling point that can be found on all of its publicity: it was made for $187. A pretty economical figure. But see the picture and you'll wonder where the money went.
Ostensibly a documentary, the film starts as Jonathan Caouette - Tarnation's director, photographer and subject - telephones the hospital where his mother is an inpatient following an overdose. Videotaping himself in close-up, he asks the doctors if the outlook is as bleak as he fears. His face is contorted with anguish, weeping openly on what looks like the worst day of his life.
But wait a second. What did he do there? Not the weeping part. He videotaped himself? He set the camera running so he could video himself making a very upsetting telephone call?
Yup. This is TV's Big Brother without the house or the budget, just the ego. Throughout his life, it seems Caouette's first reaction to any crisis has been to charge up the video camera and buy some spare tapes. And as he and his mother have both battled with psychiatric illness, there's been a lot of taping to do.
Most of the first half of the film consists of home videos of Caouette's boyhood, distorted with psychedelic effects and overlaid with subtitles that give vague biographical details. Then as Caouette becomes an adult, something important happens - he buys a video camera small enough to hold with one hand. From now on the movie is dominated by shots of Caouette in MASSIVE CLOSE-UP, as he is never more than an arm's length from the lens. Here's Caouette smoking a cigarette. Here's Caouette talking to the camera. Here's Caouette's mother, just visible as a tiny figure blotted out by her son's HUGE FACE.
Were it simply an exercise in self aggrandisement, Tarnation would be easy to ignore. But the film must be addressed seriously because of its contradictory approach to psychiatric ill health. Caouette rails against the stigma of mental illness and then a few sentences later stigmatises those with mental illness. His model of treatment seems to be based on a VHS tape of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that he watched twenty years ago. He bandies the word 'psychotic' around without qualifying its meaning. He relentlessly blames his grandparents for 'giving' his mother electro-convulsive therapy.
Clearly the film is a subjective document. Indeed, some short sections do have value as a cultural record of teenage life in the 1980s. But at times, it is artless, embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Champions of the film may counter that these are its virtues. But even if you were a close personal friend of Caouette, while you might be delighted that he has found success with his film, you would consider it rude if he asked you to sit through all 88 minutes of it.
Most damning of all, to watch Tarnation is arguably to contribute to the ongoing psychiatric ill health and mental anguish of its protagonists. $187 could have been much better spent.