Movie review: 'Tarnation'

3 ½ stars (out of 4)

Watching Jonathan Caouette's amazing autobiographical documentary "Tarnation" is like descending into a pop-music, underground-movie hell and heaven, the shattered and shattering landscape of a living body and mind. It's a film vision both painfully lucid and charged with delirium and ecstasy. Traversing his own life and hard times--and those of his mother, Renee LeBlanc, and grandparents Adolph and Rosemary Davis--through 20 years of mostly home-movie material he shot since the age of 11, Caouette has crafted a brilliant piece of confessional cinema, one capable of radically altering the film world around it.

The film, a big critical hit at Sundance and Toronto, is a shock wave of intimacy and horror. Shot for a staggeringly low initial budget of $218.32, it is as raw and personal as a movie can be, the equivalent of a cinematic journal or diary. But it's also artfully constructed and articulated, written, edited and musically designed with often jolting brilliance.

In a way, those mixed qualities -- the painful candor, fever-dream artifice and showmanship -- reflect Caouette's own mixed personality. An outsider who is also a natural self-dramatizer, he has apparently, from the age of 11, been constructing alternate personalities and worlds for himself, both as occasions for delight and tactics of survival.

Now 31, a part-time actor transplanted to New York City from the suburbs of Houston , Caouette is first seen in a seemingly stable life with his lover, David Sanin Paz. But as the past suddenly floods back after a family crisis (his mother's lithium overdose), his life begins to unspool like a Southern Gothic horror movie inspired by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.

From childhood, Caouette's viewpoint was molded both by acting gifts and a depersonalization disorder (marked by a detachment from one's own thoughts or body). But even more, as he shows unsparingly, it was molded by his family -- the colorful eccentricities of the grandparents who brought him up and the tragic disintegration of his mother, a one-time child model-actress and teen beauty who was left partly paralyzed for six months after a rooftop accident at age 12 and then suffered years of electro-shock therapy.

Mixing elements of B-movie Hollywood, classic American underground film and cinema verite documentary -- while underscoring the action continuously with an ingenious selection of pop songs (from Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" to the grimly lyrical folk rock of the late Nick Drake) -- Caouette narrates the story mostly through spare on-screen titles that suggest both Jean-Luc Godard and the terse sentences of Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song."

Through it all, he builds up an atmosphere of dread and sadness. The bright, happy little youngster doing drag acts at 11 gives way to a more morose and moody longhaired teen who vandalizes his home and stages suicide attempts before his escape to New York. Meanwhile, we watch his mother sink into depression and his grandparents age (and, in one case, die). Yet when we see any of them, it's rarely in tears or obvious anguish, but in laughing jags, temper tantrums or on-camera mugging that eventually seem to reflect a deeper anguish.

Caouette's story is not unusual for confessional literature. But we've never seen it on screen quite like this, with this devastating a blend of bluntness and compassion. Caouette's unwillingness to blame his family for what initially happened to him, or to indict any specific agent of society for what happened to his mother may seem evasive , but they also keep the film from the traps and detours of self-pity. Maverick and perverse as it may first seem, "Tarnation" becomes a universal cri de coeur capable of affecting almost anyone with feeling and a memory

"Tarnation " is also an inspiring film, and not only because it may influence some of its audience, whether gay or straight, to confront their own lives with similar candor and passion. The way it was made (on camcorders, Super-8 and the Apple iMovie editing program) -- and the way it's been accepted since by critics and audiences--could be as much an impetus to amateur filmmakers as "Citizen Kane" was to generations of professionals and independents.

Whatever its seed, "Tarnation" should blaze a sure trail this year into the hearts and minds of hardcore moviegoers. Its title, of course, is a playful Southern term for hell, and by his film's end, Caouette has not only left hell behind and exorcised his devils but perhaps some of ours as well.

"Tarnation"

Directed, written, edited and photographed by Jonathan Caouette; co-editor Brian A. Kates; music supervisor, Caouette; executive producers Gus Van Sant, John Cameron Mitchell; produced by Stephen Winter. With Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, David Sanin Paz, Rosemary Davis, Adolph Davis. A Wellspring release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:28. No MPAA rating. Adult (language, sensuality and horror movie gore imagery).

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