To date, the core principle of the digital revolution—that anyone with a vision and a video camera could make a movie, thus democratizing the medium—has mainly yielded a degraded alternative to narrative film. With few exceptions, video features have been just as conventional as their celluloid counterparts, with murky images passed off as a gimmicky form of "realism." Pieced together on iMovie for $200 and change, Jonathan Caouette's shattering Tarnation represents a landmark in personal filmmaking: It finally realizes the digital dream of a raw, unsanctioned glimpse into the soul. Basically two decades in the making, starting from when Caouette first picked up a camera at 11, his scrapbook diary exists as much for him as any audience. But as something of an emotional exhibitionist, he's been generous enough to let other people flip through the pages. In fact, he pours so much of himself into the film that it feels like a one-off, a piece of outsider art that can't be reproduced or followed up.
Culled from home movies, Super 8 footage, TV clips, re-enactments, answering-machine messages, and other audiovisual shrapnel, Tarnation recalls the docu-therapy of last year's My Architect, but pushes into far edgier psychological and cinematic territory. Instigated by news of his mother's lithium overdose, Caouette's autobiographical collage examines three generations of mental illness, abuse, and extreme dysfunction in his family. In doing so, the film becomes a record of who he was, who he is, and, perhaps most frightening of all, where he might be going. With good cause, he worries about how long he can remain tethered to his sanity.
In the film's most affecting passages, Caouette catalogs a disturbing family history, focusing primarily on his mother, a former Texas child model who steadily lost her grip on reality due to severe abuse at home and shock treatment during her repeated stays at mental hospitals. The absence of his father, coupled with his mother's institutionalization, led Caouette through several nightmarish foster-home situations before he landed in the custody of his grandparents, which wasn't much of a reprieve. However, Caouette's early flair for the dramatic gave him an outlet in movies and theater, where he cut his teeth co-directing a musical adaptation of Blue Velvet in high school and mimicked B-horror favorites in 8mm shorts with titles like "The Ankle Slasher." Now residing in New York City, Caouette tries to come to terms with his mother's illness and his own psychotic tendencies, which he's determined to keep from flowering.
Though Tarnation probably won't be shown on Apple's web site any time soon, Caouette exploits his editing software with remarkable dexterity, like a turntablist splicing his life story out of found samples. Some sequences are chopped up to the point of abstraction, held together by a narrative printed directly on the screen and by evocative song selections by Low, Iron & Wine, and Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek, among others. At times, Caouette just keeps the camera running and lets the scenes speak for themselves, including a harrowing take in which his blissed-out mother improvises around a pumpkin. The film could stand to be shorter: Coming after devastating revelations from his childhood, the present-day footage overdoses a bit on pop psychology. But by then, Tarnation has taken the audience on such an intimate journey that any self-analysis from Caouette seems redundant.