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Tarnation (2003)

by on 2012/12/31

tarnation_2003“You really interest me, you make me a happy guy.”

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I have a habit of watching people. I eavesdrop. I pry. When I’m really interested in someone, I want to find out just about everything there is to know. What they eat for breakfast, when they go to bed, what they like to do when they aren’t working, how they organize their canned goods…

Some have even called me snoopy.

Guilty, I guess.

This documentary about the life of Jonathan Caouette (Shortbus) is a rare and intimate look into the life of a troubled family. Caouette brings the viewer in close –  really, really close with 88 minutes of Super 8 film footage, interviews, photographs that chronicle 19 years of the filmmaker’s life.

Made with a staggering $218.32 budget, Caouette used freeware editing software to create something raw and confessional – the pure undistilled essence of the filmmaker. This movie is the getting-to-know someone equivalent of spending the holidays with their family, clawing through every last shoe box of family photos and eyeballing every single last home movie.

It is amazing.

Now I feel like I know him. Since I watched the film, I spend a little part of every day since hoping Jonathan Caouette is doing ok, that he’s happy and things are working out for him.

He didn’t have the best upbringing. That’s my limp little understatement. His mom Renee LeBlanc, a teen model, was given electroshock therapy after she fell from a roof. It was diagnosed to help her overcome what doctors (I assume) thought was a hysterical paralysis.

She married, had a son but all was not well with Renee. A schizophrenic, she had psychotic breaks. Some pretty terrible stuff went down. Eventually, she lost custody of her son.

Jonathan moved in with his grandparents Adolph and Rosemary Davis – his mother’s parents – both quite eccentric in their own right. Then there were drugs, the challenges of being openly gay as a teen, and the constant upheaval in his house.

The story is told through interviews with his grandparents, with his mother and with himself. Jonathan’s footage reveals a family in turmoil. However, even in the chaos, there’s a sweetness there.

Overall, I think it is fair to say Jonathan’s just a little bit fascinated by his mother. She’s difficult, she trying, sometimes she’s downright dangerous, but Jonathan wants nothing more than to be loved by her. He worries. He fixates. He’s debilitated by anxiety about her. He has good reason, she’s really not ok.

It hurt to watch.

Caouette does some brave, edgy, experimental stuff. Dramatic monologues, tints, crazy lighting, scenes where he’s bathed in blood. But pretentious little art house film this is not. This is authentic, genuine, harrowing and uplifting.

When I feel a little braver, I will watch it again.

* * * *

88 minutes


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