Tarnation is compelling, intense, emotional, saddening, strange but most of all gritty and real, a true piece of filmic mastery that has struck some highly personal events and emotions in relation to my own life and that of my fathers. Tarnation (2003) created by filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s, is a documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother, visuals culled from 19 years of his life.
Caouette throws the audience into a psychedelic, irresistible whirlwind of snapshots, family videos, video diaries, telephone calls, snippets of ’80s pop culture, and dramatic reconstructions to create an epic portrait of an American family travesty. He pulls the audience into the depths of his family’s darkest issues, turning the camera on him and relatives, suspending the audience into an unfiltered and raw view of his life. The story begins in 2003 when Jonathan learns that his schizophrenic mother, Renee, has overdosed on her lithium medication. He is catapulted back into his real and horrifying family legacy of rape, abandonment, promiscuity, drug addiction, child abuse, and psychosis. With Andy Warhol type imagery and visuals so arty and varied, supplemented with an amazing soundtrack, Tarnation is a true masterpiece whilst covering an extremely difficult subject, his unbearable love for his schizophrenic mother.
When my father was diagnosed with his various mental disorders including psychosis and schizophrenia, the same conditions to Caouette’s mother, I never mentioned it to anyone. I was worried that people would judge me or assume that my father, myself, my whole family for that matter were insane. As I’ve grew older and now understand the conditions far better, I find it extremely refreshing and brave that Caouette approached such raw subjects, creating a truly sad but realistic portrait of his beautiful yet severely damaged mother. I’ve been extremely influenced by Caouette and this documentary. It’s encouraged me to discover who my father was and in terms of this project I feel the more organic and gritty I make my project, the better it will inform the audience.
When creating my video I’ve been contemplating whether to use typed words in my video to inform the audience or to use audio of me describing what’s happening, maybe have a male read parts of the statement from the eye witness. One technique which I thought was really stylish and unique in ‘Tarnation’ was that Caouette used words to tell the story. In the film, Caouette uses the typed words to give us both that sensation of neutrality (and sometimes numbness) and to honestly focus our attention towards the images on screen. I feel that sometimes the voice-over technique can become overpowering, and you begin to focus yourself onto the words of the narrator, instead of the events unfolding on screen. With the typed words from Caouette, we focus on him, his mother, and the environment that is imploding around him. Therefore, I’m torn as to what would be more effective so may experiment with both.
In terms of visuals I’ve been tempted to incorporate stills and random clips to reflect my father psychosis. I may need to experiment with this but overall, I want my main focus to be my father’s final route. Also, after watching ‘Tarnation’ I was tempted by the idea of recording myself throughout the process of this project as I retraced the tragic life of my father. I have been revealed to more and more information surrounding my father as the weeks have progressed, introduced to his mental reports, his crimes, the talks he had with my grandmother and read his diaries that I now feel I have an in depth and accurate understanding of who my father was, something I have always wanted to do.
However, I felt seeing my face and giving my opinion within the video would somehow disrupt the project. I was also tempted to interview my grandparents and my fathers’ ex-fiancé and ‘friends’ who he went to prison or took drugs with, sometimes both. However, my grandparents become extremely upset when I ask questions about my fathers’ addiction and death whilst his ‘friends’ I don’t want to associate with. Therefore, I want the focus to be that of my father, to see things from his perspective in the video walking towards his final destination. I feel my personal input wouldn’t work as effectively for my final piece but I may do a behind the scenes type video. In the book that I create I will show my father in a more evidential way, reflecting his mere existence and demise and to help inform the viewers on what they are watching.
Overall, ‘Tarnation’ has been truly inspiring and has gave me a lot to think about in terms of creating a visually moving piece reflecting my fathers’ mental states and recreating the night of his suicide. Heavily filtered through the muddled, often beautiful and always self-absorbed consciousness of the filmmaker, Tarnation depicts a family trapped by the effects of mental illness, drugs and abuse and I want to emulate all of this through the eyes of my fathers.