- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

“Tarnation,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, borrows the shorthand dialect term for “eternal damnation” as a self-advertisement. Reputedly assembled on a Macintosh computer for $218, this up-from-obscurity shocker makes a dismal case for cheapskate confessional autobiography.

Hard to take on its scabrous, amateurish merits, “Tarnation” may nevertheless prove a style setter in low-cost vanity productions. One can envision it as a cult stalking horse for scores of self-pitying exhibitionists who have humiliating family archives at their disposal.

In contrast to the shocking but defensible “Capturing the Friedmans,” which relied on a video backlog of domestic wrangles but emerged reluctantly from an embittered past, “Tarnation” is a glorified audition reel. It lacks the mediating influence of a judicious and conscientious outsider who discovers a lamentable case history and brings a welcome detachment to the retelling.

“Tarnation” was compiled by an erstwhile wayward youth of the homosexual persuasion, Jonathan Caouette, who migrated from Houston to seek an acting career in New York. Drawing on home movies, phone messages, letters, keepsakes and monologues or encounters recorded on video, Mr. Caouette assembles a “poor but indomitable me” chronicle of family instability and punkish professional aspiration.

If the documentation were confined to the filmmaker’s Dear Diary entries, the flotsam might be tolerably grotesque and preposterous. One doesn’t necessarily relish the improvs in which a precocious pre-teen Jonathan pretended to be flighty types named Hilary and Shirelle, but there is something indelibly outrageous about backstage rehearsal fragments from a high school musical adaptation of “Blue Velvet.”

The grotesque deal breaker is the extensive footage devoted to the filmmaker’s frequently institutionalized mother, a former beauty queen and aspiring actress named Renee LeBlanc, and to her aging and ultimately infirm parents, Adolph and Rosemary Davis, who raised Jonathan for many years after their daughter went haywire. Mr. Caouette’s use of interludes in which his mother and grandparents appear demented, helpless or both proves heartlessly obscene.

Their incapacity is showcased so often and expediently that it becomes the most hateful element in an unflattering self-portrait. Mr. Caouette wallows in family neurosis and accusations of abuse, none of which we’re in a position to confirm or deny. Much of the narrative continuity is entrusted to intertitles; you read “Tarnation” as much as you reluctantly watch it. Mr. Caouette may have good reason to distrust his own voice as a narrative device, but under the circumstances, he should not be evading personal responsibility for any of the dirty laundry he’s dumping on the screen.

The sheer rawness and malice that permeate “Tarnation” may be catnip for spectators who associate the raw and undigested with emotional authenticity. There’s far too much calculation in Mr. Caouette’s angling for special consideration as a sometimes abandoned child and a confirmed Weird One. He invites contempt far more easily than sympathy. Now that he’s gotten even with the immediate family, what’s next? It’s difficult to believe that he could ever transcend this stupefying mixture of self-pity and self-exposure.

*

TITLE: “Tarnation”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter consistent with the R category: occasional profanity, nudity, sexual candor and domestic rancor; allusions to drug use; autobiographical content that uses grotesque footage of aging or mentally disturbed relatives)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jonathan Caouette. Editing by Brian A. Kates and Mr. Caouette. Executive producers: Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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