<i>Tarnation</i>, a shocking and delightful autobiography, evolves from pain to hope.

Life Mirrors Film: Mommy Dearest: Jonathan Caouette (right) shares a tender moment from home video.

Sometimes people grow up sane despite the best efforts of society to drive them mad. This is the case for filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, whose Tarnation tells the jarring story of his young life, a life that has conspired to impede his growth into sane, responsible adulthood, no less live to tell the tale in remarkably daring and lucid strokes.

Watching Tarnation is like reading his video diary, so chock-full with old photos, Super-8 and camcorder footage, answering machine tapes, and the like. As well-stocked as he is with old images of himself and his family, it’s as if Caouette were preparing his entire life to eventually make this document. His personal story makes for a thoroughly original debut—part documentary, part fiction, part acid trip.

Born in Houston to his schizophrenic mother, Renee Leblanc, Caouette has always had a tangled relationship with this woman, a beauty who had a small career as a teen model but was subjected to years of shock treatments after an illness that was believed to be psychosomatic by her parents, Rosemary and Adolf. Renee spent Jonathan’s formative years in and out of institutions, while the child grew up in his grandparents’ home in Houston. He begins filming himself (often in drag) and making short movies before hitting his teens, whereupon he discovers punk rock and gay culture, and begins his lifelong dream of making the campy Robert Stigwood musical version of his life. And though Tarnation may or may not be the fruition of that childhood dream, the movie is always fascinating to watch, even as the accumulation of horrors that have dogged his life mount ever higher.

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TARNATION ( * * * * )
Directed by Jonathan Caouette
(Not Rated, 88 min.)

The entire film is a montage of snippets pieced together from 19 years of his life, assembled on his computer using iMovie. The total cost to make it was $218.32, a number sure to spark a whole new wave of zero-budget filmmaking. That would miss the point, however. The urgency and drive displayed in Tarnation leads me to think that Caouette would have found one way or another to make his movie: No matter the cost, it could never be higher than the emotional price he has already paid.

Despite the journey one takes through the horrendous episodes of his life, Tarnation leaves the viewer in a positive state of mind. Not only has Caouette emerged from his childhood amazingly unscarred, his movie renews faith in the ability of art to carry us through the rough patches and elevate the spirit. Jonathan Caouette’s greatest testimony may be his salvation from emotional ruin by his pure belief in himself and his art.

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