Tarnation (2003) is a raw and extremely personal display of self-destruction and hope created by filmmaker Jonathan Caouette. It tells the story of Couette’s family and unbearable love for his schizophrenic mother Renee, 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 view of his life.
The story begins in 2003 when Jonathan learns that 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. Though reminiscent to works of David Lynch, Caouette has single handedly re-defined the possibilities of documentary.
In terms of visualization and creating my Phonar piece, the idea of mash up and remixing footage is something I definitely want to explore and emulate elements within Tarnation. The entire film is like a crazy remix or mash up, something I’d like to bring to my short film. I want to keep the audience interested and build tension, which I feel can be achieved through bizarre sequences and jarring footage. This could be particularly effective when describing my subject’s conflict with their gender.
Another element, which I find really stylish and successful in ‘Tarnation’, is the use of words to tell the story. Caouette’s use of text gives the audience that sensation of neutrality and distance, which evokes trust in the story. It’s as if we’re being read to like a bedtime story with the use of simple language to set the tone and scene, “Once upon a time…” It allows us as a viewer to follow the story easily and efficiently and the timing of the text is just right. I feel that a voice-over or narrator can be quite overpowering, and you begin to focus yourself onto the words, instead of the events unfolding on screen. With the text in ‘Tarnation’ we focus on Caouette, his mother, and the environment that is imploding around him. And so, as evidenced in pervious tasks, I want to use text to introduce my subjects and to tell their story. I feel this would be the quickest and simplest way for my viewers to remain engaged and understand the story.
I find it extremely refreshing and brave that Caouette approached such difficult subject matters. This has encouraged me to stick with my topic of transgender and transsexualism, however difficult or challenging. I always feel quite shy and nervous to ask questions about what my subjects have gone through out of fear of upsetting them, but I should push and try to gage the full story. I want the stories I tell to be as powerful and moving to the audience as Couette’s is.
Overall, I want to emulate that remix and whirlwind effect within parts of my final video, to help enhance the story as well as creating an interesting visual journey for the audience. The sound scapes within Tarnation are also very effective and have inspired me to collect natural sounds and other effects to build up my own sound scape for my final piece. This will also help in enhancing the viewers experience.