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Every year brings new evidence of DIY creativity emboldened by the technology at its disposal, from the rise of iPhone cinematography to TikTok stars, but nothing has embodied the artistic possibilities of the digital era more than Jonathan Couette’s “Tarnation.” The filmmaker’s 2003 debut is a poignant epic in miniature, assembled from years of home videos with abstract reflections on his complicated life and his mother’s struggles with her mental health. Couette never tries to hide the scrappy nature of his project, as its iMac filters and cheap intertitles lend the impression of a handmade operatic tone poem.
The $200 production remains a singular example of working within limited means without compromise. Even today, that visionary achievement feels as though it’s ahead of its time, anticipating a revolution in shoestring cinema that has yet to fully emerge. Until then, at least we have “Tarnation.”
While Caouette’s rapid-fire collage of home videos and photography owes much to avant garde traditions, the movie excels at assembling a remarkable coming-of-age saga in piecemeal. “Tarnation” tells two dramas at once: The travails of Renee, whose childhood modeling career was cut short by a fall, and the harrowing shock therapy she received as a result; meanwhile, her son, Caouette, grows up in a single-parent household with his emotionally disturbed mother and eventually moves in with his grandparents in Houston. Over time, Caouette comes to terms with his sexuality, heads to New York City, and settles into young adulthood while grappling with his mother’s special needs.
Folded into a traditional narrative structure, these circumstances might risk seeming histrionic or soapy. Instead, each development in Caouette’s life drifts through the narrative with delicate, unpredictable rhythms, as if following the organic flow of the filmmaker’s own tortured memory banks. Caouette proved to be a remarkable film diarist from a young age, and the movie chronicles his maturation process through revealing first-person addresses as his personality slowly accumulates – both flamboyant and tough, a gay theater nerd with dark inner demons threatening to topple his quest for a stable new life. All the while, Renee remains his loyal follower, as her tragic story both pushes him to improve his surroundings and forces him to grapple with his grim family history.
Even as Caouette arrives in New York, finds a supportive boyfriend, and assimilates into metropolitan life, Renee settles there with him. “Tarnation” eventually becomes the story of one man reconciling his past with his present, while his bold editing style puts us in the thick of that tumultuous process. “As fucked up as it is,” Caouette tells us late in the story, “I can’t escape her.”
While he continues to struggle with his mother’s problems and his desire to move past them, “Tarnation” shimmers with an energizing and often joyful storytelling momentum, not rejecting the filmmaker’s problems but allowing them to accumulate a kind of haunting beauty that emerges out of the grimy quality of the material. The story often turns on the subtle cues of its intertitles, and it’s here that Caouette tells us how his mother became very sad, revels in the moment he discovered musical theater, and explores the dreams that haunt him at every turn. By using the third person, he explores the process of making sense with one’s past by gaining distance from it with time.
Here and there, “Tarnation” comes across like a series of brash, expressionistic music videos assembled from scrapbooks, but it maintains just enough forward momentum to pulsate with suspense as Caouette unleashes his personal baggage and let his freak flag fly. The movie amounts to a celebration of what it means to wrestle with a personal story — the ups, downs, and in-betweens — while finding some measure of peace with the whole package.
Years later, Caouette revisited his travails with his mother in a surreal followup, “Walk Away Renee,” a complex and moving achievement unto itself. However, in the years since “Tarnation,” the essence of its style has migrated online in the proliferation of amateur videos; anyone with a smartphone has better resources at their disposal. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find much out there with the bold ambition of Caouette’s first feature, which lets it all hang out and turns that tricky gamble into an art form of its own making.
“Tarnation” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.