'Tarnation' DVD Review **** 080505

The Work = ****
One of the first thoughts I had watching 'Tarnation' was how Jonathan Caouette managed to get footage of himself in extreme states of emotion. How could he film during such trying times? Was the camera a form of therapy? Did it allow him to cope with all of the stress?

'Tarnation' doesn’t explain. However, what is clear is 'Tarnation' is a unique and powerful film. Mixing home movies, photos, music, effects, and footage from various films and bits; director, co-producer and editor Caouette created an autobiographical film that is about his relationship with his schizophrenic mother Renee. Far from typical, the film has been compared to David Lynch and in some respects it is a warranted comparison.

Like Lynch, Caouette mixes everyday and often happy imagery with the bizarre and sometimes tragic. The film also shares a similarity with some of Lynch’s work in that it has an unusual narrative. 'Tarnation' jumps around mixing footage and sounds from Caouette’s childhood to his adulthood. By the end of the film I had a pretty clear picture of some the tragedies that had befallen Caouette and his mother.

'Tarnation' will not be for everyone. It reminded me of a silent motion picture in the way it relied on images and text to tell its story. The music helps drive home the emotion of what Caouette is showing. When she was twelve, Caouette’s mother Renee fell from a roof while playing and was paralyzed. She was misdiagnosed as having a mental disorder that caused her paralysis and treated it with shock therapy for two years. She emerged from the therapy able to walk and tragically, schizophrenic.

I have a rare disease and I use a wheelchair to get around. It has often occurred to me that if I had been born in a past era I would not have made it past child birth. In the middle ages I probably would have been diagnosed as having been cursed by a demon or something. Even in more recent times I may have been misdiagnosed and treated by being say, exorcised. I bring this up because 'Tarnation' argues that Renee being misdiagnosed and “treated” for her paralysis caused her schizophrenia and led to much of the horrible events in her and Caouette’s life.

The misfortunes in their lives were caused by misunderstanding and that is one of the reasons why their story is so sad. There are no easy answers and Renee’s father, shown in the film as an old man who is somewhat oblivious to his daughter’s disease, denies any wrong doing. Frankly, it was so long ago that he may not remember his justification for the treatment and he certainly feels he is being accused of wrong doings he did not commit.

Caouette presents his, his mother’s and their family’s story through a series of rapidly cut clips. The footage and the still photos are often shown with distorted colors and shades. He layers on editing effects and distorts the images to great extremes. The unusual presentation makes some passages in the movie play almost like a saturated horror film.

The rabid cutting, sometimes horrific imagery, and unusual narrative will no doubt turn a lot of people away from this film. If you can make it through you will probably find the film a moving and enjoyable piece of personal expression. I enjoyed 'Tarnation' and was impressed with Caouette’s ability to present the tragedies of his life in an artistic (and I suspect therapeutic) way without being preachy or melodramatic. For me, the extreme effects and imagery started to work abet against the film in some passages and seemed a tad bit repetitive. For those that really get into the style that this film is made in that will certainly not be a problem and for me it was only a minor qualm as it lessened the dramatic affect of some sequences.

DVD = ****

The Look
Well what do you expect? This film is a mix of footage, often poor quality, which was predominantly put together on an Imac. The footage ranges from pretty good to pretty bad but it is all do to the source material. The film is presented in 1.33:1 as intended. For what it is, this is probably about the best the film could look.

The Sound
Now, this film was made super cheap but once it was picked up a large chunk of change was spent on the sound in it. Everything from music rights to the sound mix being boosted up was handled. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. There are also French subtitles available.

The Bonus
Here’s where many of my questions about the film were answered. There is a nice little group of extras on the DVD, the best of which is a commentary by Caouette. He talks about a range of topics and goes into detail about many of the sequences in the film. Most of my questions about the film were answered. Caouette is actually quite a good actor and he reenacted many of the moments from his life that appear in the film because (obviously) he wouldn’t have thought to run and start up the camera when he was in the middle of a crises.

However, the track also opens up many questions. Caouette reveals that some of the footage in the film is actually footage of his son(!) who was never actually shown or mentioned in 'Tarnation'. While the focus of the film was Caouette’s relationship to his mother, it seems strange that he would leave out that he himself is a parent. I would bet his relationship with his son affected his relationship with his mother and visa versa.

There are also some revelations about creative story telling liberties that were taken. Some of the changes that Caouette made to the story of his own life were fairly big and I wish he hadn’t felt the need to try and shape his life into a story. Still this is a great track that Caouette obviously put effort in to. There are some big gaps but when Caouette is talking it is a worthwhile listen.

The are some extended scenes and some extra sequences that are not in the film. While I can’t say they would have added a lot to the film itself, they are nice in and of themselves and are an ok bonus. I would have given them up if there could have been a thorough making of documentary on the DVD. There is also a poster gallery and a trailer gallery on the DVD.

All Together = ****
This is an unusual film and surely not for everyone but it is also an easy one to recommend. Caouette has drawn from his own life to create an artistic expression that is both an impressive film and probably a form of therapy for him. Never preachy, 'Tarnation' presents a difficult story in a sometimes disturbing and often unorthodox manor. This may turn some viewers off and for myself did start to come close to being almost too abstract. Yet, any criticism I can find with the film is mute as Caouette has made from what he has around him a very impressive film.


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