Tarnation dir. Jonathan Caouette

Fri Oct 22-Thurs Oct 28 at the Varsity.

Tarnation is one of the most powerfully emotional movies I've ever seen. A first-person documentary comprising home-movie footage shot over the course of more than 20 years, it's a story of sorrow, alienation, mental illness, self-invention, self-destruction, and ultimately, the redemptive, irreducible bond between a deeply troubled mother and her deeply troubled son.

Crucially, the film evokes the epic creativity and torturous inner life of its creator, Jonathan Caouette, using tools available to anyone with access to an Apple computer. Famously, Tarnation's lifetime of footage was compiled using standard iMovie software. But the independent-filmmaker hype surrounding the film's release fails to convey the dark, swooning, exhibitionistic, uncensored heart that all those lo-fi visual effects are there to reveal.

When I spoke to Caouette by phone, he was smoking cigarettes in a hotel room in L.A., where he was "trying to maintain my DIY self" amid a barrage of "insane" offers from movie executives eager to do business with the filmmaker of the moment. "I keep saying I feel like [Tarnation's success] has capped a period of my life," Caouette mused. "But now, in hindsight--actually, in this moment, as we're talking--I don't know if it necessarily has. I'm still so in the midst of it. I definitely feel like a prime character in a Twilight Zone episode. It's unsettling in just as many good ways as it is in questionable ways."

Because his movie has been elected to stand for something more than just its subject matter--in terms of both independent filmmaking and of mental health awareness, sexual identity, the art of autobiography, and so forth--it's easy to imagine the Twilight Zone that Caouette has entered. His intensely personal film is being hailed as a masterpiece. But if the film's genius arises from its explicit identity as an underground, idiosyncratic, and presumably inaccessible artifact of the darkest corners of the human psyche, then why is it proving to be so accessible?

"I thought, at best, the film was going to be a night at the Anthology Film Archives in New York," Caouette explains. "If I was lucky. Or maybe a night at a Williamsburg coffee shop with a video projector. But remarkably enough, this film seems to make sense to every age and gender and walk of life there is. It still wakes me up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach."

As the footage of his childhood reveals, Caouette is a born performer with a commitment to self-invention that verges on scary. But the performance of Tarnation is much grander than its components. It's a heroic assertion of life that's accompanied by a chilling history of compelling arguments against it; the film embraces hope without denying the self-destructive impulse. In many ways, it's the story of a performer in search of an audience. The greatest irony of all is that its author has now found one, but only by tearing down all pretense of self-aggrandizement--Caouette achieves beauty by showing his ugliest self.

Tarnation's microcinematic roots both affirm and belie the idea that "anyone can do it." Yes, anyone can have a miserable life. Yes, anyone can document it with a Handycam and a computer. But it takes a genuine artist to contextualize the elements of his life in such a way as to reveal something essential about humankind in the arrangement. Rather than imposing arbitrary order on the essentially random suffering of existence, Caouette recognizes that the search for the narrative is all the narrative he needs. "I wanted to take what I had," the director explains, "and run with the rinky-dink aesthetic of iMovie. The first thing I would round my mind's eye off to was Warhol. It worked for everything I was about."

Given the film's notoriety, I asked Caouette if he was tired yet of people coming up to him with their own stories about their own mothers, thinking they know him, or wanting--as is a common response to watching Tarnation--a hug. He dismissed the very thought.

"It's a beautiful and bizarre way of meeting people and starting a conversation," he declared. "If there's anything I can contribute to the idea of chipping away bullshit between people, then great. If I can put something out there that can sort of remind people that there is such a thing as the human condition, you know, I'm thrilled."

Support The Stranger