by Luke Baumgarten & r & Tarnation & r & Tarnation was on 50 critics' top 10 lists last year, but no one at the North Division Blockbuster had ever heard of it. "Is that even a movie?" one girl asked me. Not only is it a movie, we discovered, but they had a copy in stock.
And even though it may be loosely defined as a documentary, from a critical standpoint, it defies classification.
Renee LeBlanc was a child model in Texas who became paralyzed after a fall. Doctors thought the injury was mental and, in good psychiatric form, prescribed a battery of electroshocks. Her personality had been obliterated by 2002, when an overdose of Lithium took the rest of her faculties as well. Jonathan Caouette is her son. As a child, he saw his mother raped. Later, in the foster system, he was molested himself. Since the age of 11, he has compulsively recorded his life on a Super8 camera.
Tarnation is that life, culled from thousands of hours of tape and cobbled into a confused, paranoid whodunit.
The film plays like an elliptical interrogation. The suspects are shown: Renee, Grandma Rosemary, Grandpa Adolph, Jonathan himself. Answers are sought, but Caouette doesn't quite know how to get at them.
Gradually, as the focus shifts from 11-year-old Jonathan's one-man-film about a battered wife, to his teen fixations with transvestitism and punk culture, to his grandparents' bizarre behavior, to (eventually) his mom, we are introduced to a character we never see: the off-screen Jonathan. We realize the Jonathan we're shown is just a role he plays -- tortured soul, narcissism personified. The off-screen Jonathan is something else: a biographer desperate to understand his childhood's twisted mass -- and scared that he'll never figure it out.
By the time he gives us eight minutes of his mother giggling, twitching and singing a song about a pumpkin, it's clear his questions probably won't ever be answered. Not the way he'd want anyhow.
In the closing minutes, staring out from the screen, he asks us the questions that not even on-screen Jonathan has been able to answer. Then he starts to cry. At that point, it's clear Tarnation wasn't made for us, which is probably what makes it so strangely moving.