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Experimental 'Tarnation' explores a filmmaker's troubled life

By Richard von Busack

I ONCE READ a description of a patient going through shock treatment. The subject claimed that what he saw in his head when the voltage was turned on was like a screening of film ends and clips. Director Jonathan Caouette's family history as presented in the collage film Tarnation resembles that kind of shock treatment. He rewatches his life as if through an electric bubble of pop culture.

During a recent brief appearance at the Act One theater in Berkeley, Caouette said that he had "been inadvertently making this movie for 20 years." In addition to clips from tape recordings and VHS diaries, Caouette wove Tarnation out of the stimuli pouring in from the radio, the TV and the movie screen.

The materials Caouette uses are homemade and pirated images from video and Super 8 backyard films. In his teenage years, he made movies in imitation of John Waters, melodramas with campy titles like The Ankle Slasher and The Goddamn Whore. Elements of everything Caouette adored are incorporated: Bionic Women episodes, tunes by Joni Mitchell and David Bowie and bits of rock musicals.

Tarnation tells the story of Jonathan Caouette, his afflicted mother, Renee, and his grandparents. Watching his elders on film—they're irascible funny people—it occurs to me that too often artists overdo the starkness when they make art about the people of Texas and middle America. Slick artists misunderstand pregnant silences as barren ones.

Caouette isn't out to make a freak show of his family. He suffers from depersonalization disorder, an incurable mental syndrome that causes one to experience life as if in the second person. This disorder must have something to do with the tender detachment Caouette shows when he witnesses the deterioration of his grandparents Adolph and Rosemary.

In the early 1960s, Caouette's mother was a successful child model, the star of a nationally broadcast bubble-bath commercial. After she fell from a roof, she suffered a mysterious case of paralysis. She then experienced more than 100 rounds of shock treatment in Texas psychiatric hospitals. She was married briefly, and the marriage resulted in Jonathan. The first contact the filmmaker got from his father was a telephone message 20 years after he left: "Your crazy mother was just a good piece of ass."

As Renee went in and out of hospitals, Jonathan was kicked into the child-welfare system. He was rescued by his grandparents, who seem to be easygoing about their grandchild's mad flamboyance, his love of cameras.

The story of Caouette's life edits down into an 88-minute movie, completely assembled on an iMac. And it never for a minute seems self-indulgent or exploitative.

We always hear about how desensitizing it is to be flooded with images. Yet all the shows and songs that Tarnation soaks in have a different effect. The movie is about Caouette's roots, but it is also about the transience of broadcast images. In the press notes, Caouette talks about doing what a lot of children did before the home video recorder and TiVo.

Using a cassette recorder, he taped the soundtracks of television broadcasts, so at least he could listen again and again to the vanished images. Movies and television had a sense of preciousness that can't be imagined today, when tape and DVD copies of broadcasts are so easy to get a hold of. Something seen on a TV or a movie screen grew and flourished in the mind once upon a time.

So Tarnation seems to me one of the most acute films I have seen about what it is like to be a human antenna, picking up all those wavelengths during the last 30 years. One lives with a mental gallery of images that is far less orderly than a library or an art gallery. This gallery is more disordered, crazy: a thrift shop of dusty tape cassettes, discarded clothes, paperbacks and half-forgotten kitsch.

I also want to mention the adult figures in Caouette's life: the unidentified drama teacher at Gloversville High School in Houston who helped Caouette stage a musical version of Blue Velvet. Unfortunately, we don't meet the Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar, who took Caouette to the movies as part of the Big Brother program. Millar's friendship helped keep Caouette going until he was ready to rewind and replay his life. And when Tarnation was in an earlier, more unwieldy stage, Caouette received support from Gus Van Sant (Elephant) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

Among other things, Tarnation endorses mentoring, proves the usefulness of artistic influence. Just when you thought that self-promotion was the be-all and end-all of modern art, it is a shock to be reminded that art really does save lives sometimes.

Tarnation (Unrated; 88 min.), a film by Jonathan Caouette, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell.

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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