A tale of overwhelming sadness and fierce histrionics hewed from a trove of Super-8 home movies, photo booth portraits, and answering machine messages, Jonathan Caouette’s precocious memoir-cum-psychodrama, opening at Film Forum after its single NYFF showing, is so raw that it bleeds.
Caouette claims a ridiculous three-figure budget, a metaphor perhaps for having ripped the movie out of his gut. The jagged cutting and supersaturated colors have the assaultive effect of a ’60s light show. The recurring multiple images seem designed to induce attention deficit disorder. The structure of this lush, frenzied assemblage suggests shock therapy, which is precisely what the filmmaker’s mother, a onetime child model, received after she fell off the roof of her Texas home and suffered hysterical paralysis. The treatment appears to have shattered her psyche. Raised by his grandparents, Caouette grew up as a one-boy subculture with a penchant for hysteria. There’s an auto-portrait of him at 11 doing a precocious drag act; two years later he was producing Super-8 slasher films with the neighborhood kids; his high school project was a musical version of Blue Velvet with the cast lip-synching Marianne Faithfull songs. Caouette arrived in New York in his twenties, finding a place for his manic energy and even his tormented mother.
Tarnation is its own resolution. Adrift in a selectively arranged saga of breakdowns, foster homes, abuse, attempted suicide, and brain damage, the artist clutches his camera as though it were a life raft, and apparently he survives. Caouette recalls thinking as a teenager that his story was a potential rock opera. Only time will tell, but Tarnation surely recounts an American life—grandiose fantasies amid pop detritus, success and celebrity distilled from a miasma of pain.