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TARNATION (director/writer: Jonathan Caouette; cinematographer: Jonathan Caouette; editor: Brian A. Kates/Jonathan Caouette; music: John Califra/Max Avery Lichtenstein; Cast: Jonathan Caouette, Renee LeBlanc, David Sanin Paz, Rosemary Davis, Adolph Davis, Steven Caouette; Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stephen Winter; Wellspring Media; 2003)
“Not for all tastes, but for those who come to the table with an appetite for something different they will be treated with a special home cooked meal.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jonathan Caouette’s film about growing up queer and dealing with a mentally ill mother he loves very much was put together as a Super-8 home movie for initially about $218 using iMovie, Apple’s ordinary DV editing program. It’s a powerful flesh-and-blood, one-of-a-kind, autobiographical confessional documentary that pays homage in its non-conformist style to a long list of experimental filmmakers from the likes of George Kuchar, Kenneth Anger, John Cassavetes, Stan Brakhage and David Lynch. Growing up in a dysfunctional family situation in Texas, Jonathan started keeping a video diary of his life ever since he was eleven, where he’s seen dressed up in a kerchief and wearing lipstick as a girl delivering a sorrowful monologue about another unfortunate family. Jonathan uses snippets of film from those odd moments and weaves in pop-culture happenings, images of gay sexuality, acid trips, answering machine messages, a variety of assorted family snapshots, clips from musicals and horror flicks he either recreated or created, and a host of other sundry things to give the scenario a surreal feel for his kaleidoscope of pain. Caouette licks his psychic wounds with these diversions in the hopes he can heal himself from his overbearing reality and recurring bad dreams. The miracle is that what he did probably worked, as he seemed to become an adult with a sense of maturity, sanity, keen wit, and the ability to love and maintain a pleasant disposition, breaking the cycle of family abuse handed down through the generations. Thanks must go to his mother, who no matter how batty she became never was abusive–which was something she was determined to never pass on to her child.

The film opens in 2003 when the 31-year-old Jonathan learns by phone that his schizophrenic mother, Renee LeBlanc, has overdosed on her lithium medication and leaves his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment to return home to Texas to be of help. We meet Jonathan’s bewildered and peculiar grandparents, Rosemary and Adolph Davis, and learn about the mistreatment of his mother when she was 13; after falling off a roof, she was partially paralyzed and for some bizarre reason was given electroshock treatments to help her recover at the insistence of her parents. This leads to the former child model for kiddie magazines, worsening mental problems–something that plagued Renee for the rest of her life. Renee had a short-lived marriage (Steven Caouette) that results in Jonathan, but the father disappeared not knowing about the pregnancy. It wasn’t until thirty years later in 2003 that all three were reunited for a brief visit in Jonathan’s Brooklyn pad, that was filmed in all its awkwardness.

Jonathan’s mother was physically abused throughout her childhood by her mother beating her with a strap and her father allegedly locking her in a closet. The mother tried to start anew in Chicago, but she was raped in front of her young son by a stranger and when trying to return to Texas became verbally abusive to the Greyhound passengers. She was taken off the bus and placed in a mental hospital, while the toddler was placed in a foster home. Jonathan stayed in several shelters where he was abused, and when released lived with his grandparents in Texas. It’s never explained why his grandparents were not allowed to have him before he was sent to a foster home.

Jonathan looks back at his family history with his live-in boyfriend David by his side, and tries bravely to confront his past and how it still is haunting. It’s a film that gets inside its subject in an intimate way like few films ever do and spills out an overwhelmingly sad tale that is raw and unvarnished. Its major flaw is that there are gaps in this loosely structured autobiography that leave too many unanswered questions about such things as the parental abuse allegations by the mother and at the foster home for the child. Not for all tastes, but for those who come to the table with an appetite for something different they will be be treated with a special home cooked meal.

REVIEWED ON 12/5/2004 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”