Tarnation: Documenting 19 Years of Life

Edited for a meagre $218 on Apple’s iMovie software, Tarnation offers an intelligent perspective on film-making – independent or otherwise. The film has achieved such terseness in editing and post-production that is not possible with an Interstellar – in fact, the history of independent and underground cinema is replete with examples of filmmakers wisely resorting to DIY techniques to create cinema of grittiness, dirty realism and of backyard poetry. The moot point here being that art cannot be dictated, destroyed or defeated by restrictions on one’s capital. Though I may sound overly optimistic when I say this,  films like Tarnation instil a certain vigour in my optimism.tarnation

The film poetically depicts the pain and longing experienced by the filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, who has created this film in an attempt to understand the absence and mental breakdown of his mother, Renee LeBlanc. Culled from over 19 years of home video footage, photographs, telephonic conversations and tape recordings, Jonathan allows the audience to experience some semblance of the reality of a child who has grown up in a  dysfunctional family – with grandparents taking on the role of his parents, abusive foster parents, being witness to one’s own mother’s rape, drug abuse, and coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Despite being an intensely personal subject, Jonathan utilised the third-person narrative – a device intended to create a platform for objectivity. The form is borrowed from fairy tales, where narratives start with “Once upon a time….”, lending an interesting fusion of imagination and reality, and builds catharsis in the audience.

Primarily an actor, Jonathan was also part of the underground cinema that witnessed its peak in the ‘8o’s – the decade in which he came of age. His experiences with such cinema moulds the visual form of Tarnation – from complex montages, to burn-outs,from use of still images as movement images to amalgamation of film and digital footage. His strength as a performer further emboldens the narrative- Ed Gonzalez of Slant magazine has even gone on to applaud him as a ‘drama queen’, appreciating eleven-year-old Jonathan’s portrayal of a drug addict, and pregnant woman, in a home video. The film is interpolated with such theatricality at distinct junctures – Jonathan depicting the reality surrounding him and trying to understand it; the audience then privy to his psyche and his vertiginous existence.tarnation_060403110227487_wideweb__300x40011

For the most part, the audience might think that the film is about Jonathan rather than his mother, due to her relative onscreen absence. The presence-absence dichotomy is a rather complex philosophical territory. In Tarnation, the absence of the mother is the driving force of the narrative. This absence deeply affects the existence and psyche of Jonathan. While Renee, Jonathan’s mother, only makes intermittent appearances in the film,one can sense ‘absent existence’ throughout the film. Jonathan’s angst parallels that of Rimbaud – both ruing the absence of a ‘loving-mother’.

The music of the film ranges from country to psychedelic, evoking the Texan county and lending a sense of sentimentality, also reflecting Jonathan’s mental state. The film is interspersed with clips from various underground films, and from TV series, and there is distinct reference to Paul Morrissey and David Lynch – such self-reflexivity underlining Jonathan’s love for cinema. For him, the camera is not just a mechanical device that records, but a witness to his life while growing up in Houston, until he leaves for New York to pursue acting. With Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette has not made a film, but created a unique cinematic experience.

Brishbhanu Baruah

Brishbhanu Baruah is a student of Film Direction at FTII, Pune. When he's not talking about film or music, he's thinking about it – creating his own quirky theories about films, and mapping places and situations according to the kind of music they evoke. Brishbhanu is also a huge bookworm and enjoys writing poetry.

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