Tarnation (2003, Jonathan Caouette)
The New York Times has accused Jonathan Caouette of creating a new genre of filmmaking with Tarnation, his debut film, put together on iMovie (a free Macintosh program) from footage he’d compiled from the age of 11.
Whether it’s a new genre or simply a different form of documentary, Tarnation is brilliant. Caouette has laid bare his entire life with the unflinching eye of Diane Arbus and the aesthetic of David Lynch. Part autobiography and part avant-garde exploration of self, this film uses home movies, photographs, footage from films, and silent-film titles to loosely tell the story of a boy and his mother, and a world that didn’t know what to do with either of them. Caouette got his first camera at 10 from a Big Brother, and pulled together 20 years of footage of his life, from still photos VHS to Super 8 to digital video, into a seamless whole that provides an unparalleled look into a human life, heart, and mind. He doesn’t ask for sympathy, or pass judgment, only asks us to see what happened to him, and to think about it.
The use of titles rather than narration at saves the film from melodrama and makes sense of the flood of images, giving some story structure to what is essentially a non-narrative piece. “I used the camera to get a sense of control and to somehow validate what was happening,” says Caouette, adding, “I hope that this film can inspire anyone who’s ever wanted to make a film but has been intimidated.” Indeed, there are no excuses for any of us after seeing what he’s done here.