Tarnation

At the risk of sounding flippant, there's no material as rich as a miserable childhood — writers as diverse as JT LeRoy and Dorothy Allison have spun mesmerizing narratives from tattered memories of trauma and abuse. Self-taught filmmaker Jonathan Caouette also turned his troubled past into a bold, painful memoir located in an innovative middleground between...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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At the risk of sounding flippant, there's no material as rich as a miserable childhood — writers as diverse as JT LeRoy and Dorothy Allison have spun mesmerizing narratives from tattered memories of trauma and abuse. Self-taught filmmaker Jonathan Caouette also turned his troubled past into a bold, painful memoir located in an innovative middleground between conventional documentary and homemade home-movie collage. Caouette begins in March 2002, when he received the news that his mentally ill mother, Renee LeBlanc, had overdosed on lithium. Caouette rushes back to the Houston suburb he once called home, leaving his boyfriend in New York City. The journey back becomes an emotional passage into the past, powerfully visualized through snippets of the films Caouette began shooting of himself and his broken family when he was a child. Renee, the beautiful daughter of Adolph Davis and his wife, Rosemary, was a local model whose childhood abruptly ended when she fell from the roof of her parents' house. The accident left Renee paralyzed for six months, but Adolph believed her affliction was psychosomatic and she was subjected to a strict regime of electroconvulsive shock therapy that changed her forever, and may have triggered the emotional disorder that eventually destroyed her. In 1972 Renee married Caouette's father, a New Hampshire man who left before learning that his wife was pregnant. Caouette's fragile family disintegrated five years later when, in a full-blown psychotic state, Renee took four-year-old Jonathan to Chicago. She was raped in full view of her son and Caouette was placed in foster care, where he was physically abused for two years and finally adopted by his grandparents. As an underaged teen, Caouette discovered drugs, punk rock, underground filmmaking and Houston's gay bars, along with demons that lead to multiple suicide attempts and hospitalization. Though institutionalized throughout much of Caouette's adolescence, Renee remained a powerful emotional presence; when he finally leaves Houston, he finds he can't escape the mother he dearly loves but may not be able to save. As different as they are, it's hard not to think of CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) while watching TARNATION. Like the men of the dysfunctional Friedman family, Caouette is so driven by the need to film his image that he apparently can't see the ways in which the camera facilitates the replacement of honest family interaction with role-playing and performance. That the gifted Caouette is oblivious to this crucial dynamic is both surprising and disappointing; clearly there's no inherent connection between self-obsession and introspection, and it's hard not to feel that his therapeutic work remains unfinished.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: At the risk of sounding flippant, there's no material as rich as a miserable childhood — writers as diverse as JT LeRoy and Dorothy Allison have spun mesmerizing narratives from tattered memories of trauma and abuse. Self-taught filmmaker Jonathan Caouette… (more)

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