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Tarnation | Review

The “Rocky”, “Horror”, “Picture”, Show

Caouette’s self portrait is the most deeply affecting viewing material of the year.

Usually, therapy sessions take place, one-on-one behind closed doors and not on the festival circuits. Twenty years in the making, Tarnation is what one could call a filmic miracle – simply because the film’s unique subject/creator somehow managed to make it through to the other side. Critically praised for its cost-cutting efficiency, its stylistic use of personal recordings and its blunt and brutal examination of self – the most poignant and painfully emotional documentary of the year will make you want to crawl back into your mother’s womb.

One part affirmation of one son’s love for his sick mother and another part a person’s morbid fascination with his tragic past – Jonathon Caouette opens himself to a search for what lies beneath,- and he does so with a frightful candidness and an artistic postmodern Andy Warhol-ish creative hand. If growing up gay, abused and a punk – basically a complete outcast was not hard enough, imagine having to support a mentally unhealthy schizophrenic-like mother in the process. Pumped with psychedelic montage and printed texts on the screen and by way of the very basic iMovie technology and a camcorder – this collage of Super-8, videotape, answering machine messages and photos shows how this one fairytale story took a terribly wrong turn. The texture and the human emotions resonate to the highest levels making for a film that is so rich that it becomes blinding.

Much like Capturing the Friedmans, this shows how when the red light on the video camcorder is turned on that it invites the viewer into a very personal world, one that exposes harsh truths and one that doesn’t shy away from emotional pain. Caouette’s fascinating relationship with his camera is disconcerting at times – but the audience quickly understands that the suffering in front of a camera was and probably still is for Caouette the most therapeutic process for the young man.

Perhaps it’s Caouette’s compassion for his mentally unhealthy mother, or the search for the loving embrace after the painful discoveries, or the frightening reenactment of a Dixie Tennessee William’s type or the haunting acoustic guitar number that makes this personal piece something that will easily open the flood gates in the tear department. Hopefully, with Wellspring Releasing and executive producers Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell in the fold, perhaps this 88 minute home movie collage which was never meant to be seen by anyone will be seen by everyone. A Sundance favorite, Tarnation is quite simply a jarring experimental documentary film – a once in a lifetime film experience and piece of Americana which will overwhelm the senses and the type of survival story that makes even the victims in Touching the Void look like they had it easy.

Rating 4.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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