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TARNATION ****

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, Rosemary Davis, Adolph Davis, David Sanin Paz, Michael Cox; Directed and written by Jonathan Caouette

Scanning the credits for this movie, you might well ask who the hell is writer-director-star Jonathan Caouette. But once you’ve seen “Tarnation,” you’ll never have to ask again. Here’s why...

This 31-year-old, full-blown auteur draws us into a cruel, heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious world inhabited by emotionally maimed people, most of whom happen to be members of his own family. As we observe them in shockingly naked encounters through the years, we come to experience Jonathan Caouette, his mother and his grandparents intimately, even though in the end they remain tantalizing mysteries.

How is it that the filmmaker summoned not only total recall but also the necessary visual tools to take us on this autobiographical odyssey? The answer is deceptively simple. On his eleventh birthday, Jonathan was given a super-8 camera, and from that day on, he obsessively photographed every bizarre event--from major to minor--that took place in his epically dysfunctional family and in the stifling Texas suburb they more or less called home. And, as the bedroom shot, above, suggests, he seldom left himself out of the picture.

“Tarnation” is an artfully structured montage of the multitude of images he managed to capture with his trustworthy super-8, a succession of extraordinarily raw and riveting scenes, both in grainy black-and-white and in vivid, over-the-top color. Sometimes they are narrated with unflinching candor by Caouette himself, sometimes they are related by his three closest relatives in voices tinged with unforgettable torment. At other times, plot developments--such as instances of sexual abuse or attempts at suicide by Jonathan, a yearning, emphatically gay youth left by his mentally ill mother in the care of his monumentally inept grandparents--are delivered by hand-scrawled titles, phrases and short, deadpan sentences.

The good news for Caouette was that he was able to make his incredibly ambitious film, which he edited on a laptop computer, for considerably under $1,000. Also falling into the category of good news is the fact that he finally fled from the best little madhouse in Texas to New York, where he moved in with David, his sweet, thoroughly sane boyfriend (whose devotion to Jonathan is touchingly demonstrated in “Tarnation”).

But there is little doubt that the true love of Jonathan’s life is his mother, Renee LeBlanc (pictured with him above). Once a child model, Renee fell from the roof of her house when she was a young woman, landed on the ground in a standing position, blacked out, and woke up paralyzed in a hospital bed. She did recover physically--she even married briefly, which explains Jonathan’s emergence on the scene.

For Renee, alas, all was not quiet on the mental front. Which is why her chronically addled parents decided to put her through a massive series of shock treatments that led to major schizophrenia and numerous excursions to the psychiatric ward.

Renee, both in her demented moments and her periods of lucidity and loving, is an overwhelming, haunting presence in “Tarnation,” and it’s a pleasure to report that she eventually joined Jonathan in New York (and it’s clear that she looks upon David as a second son).

The bad news for Jonathan's fans is that he failed to show up for a press conference when his film was recently shown at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. The reason given by New York Film Festival spokesman Graham Leggat was “problems in the family.”