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    Tar baby

    Son of the South Jonathan Caouette has documented his life from performance-loving youngster with a camera in Texas to adult gay man in New York, using a lifetime of homemade films to construct the unorthodox documentary "Tarnation."


    Andy Warhol simply didn't anticipate the ubiquity of the home video camera or he would have said that in the future, every dysfunctional family will have its home videos shown in art theaters for 15 minutes.

    Written and directed by: Jonathan Caouette.
    Featuring: Jonathan Caouette, Michael Cox, Adolph Davis, Rosemary Davis, Renee Leblanc, David Sanin Paz.

    Related links: Official site
    Walter Reade Theater Lincoln Center, 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam (212) 875-5600 Tue. Oct. 5, 9:00 pm

    NY Film Festival 2004

     Bad Education
     House of Flying Daggers
     Infernal Affairs trilogy
     Look at Me
     Notre Musique
     Or (My Treasure)
    • Sideways
     Triple Agent
     Woman Is the Future of Man
     The World

     Official site
    Hawaii Film Festival 2004
    • Overview

    • Baytong
    • Clean
    • In the Realm of the Unreal
    • South of the Clouds
      • Steamboy
    • Take Out
    • Tarnation

    • Official site
    Last year brought us the critical favorite "Capturing the Friedmans," an inadequate documentary built voyeuristically around the found home movies of a troubled Long Island family. This year, in a similar vein, New York transplant Jonathan Caouette explores his own family's wretched past through film and video he shot himself while growing up. Both movies give you a frequent sense of "I don't know if I need to be seeing this," but "Tarnation" feels less intrusive, since it's about the filmmaker himself and the story has all the intimacy and candor he chooses to give it.

    Through snapshots and on-screen titles at first, Caouette shows a scrapbook of his tumultuous life to age 11. Briefly married to a returning Vietnam-era soldier, his brain-damaged but well-intentioned mother, Renee, had her only child, took him to Chicago for a few troubled years, and then returned to her wacked-out parents' home in small-town Texas to finish raising him up.

    The first memorable moment in the film is the earliest piece of film from this period in Jonathan's life. The already-quirky 11-year-old has his partially bleached hair pulled under a scarf as he begins channeling "Hillary," a semi-educated housewife who sobbingly recounts her story of abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband. When a title reveals that this is the young Jonathan, it's an instant that tells us a lot about the young man we're going to get to know very closely over the course of the film. Even at this age, he's an all-out showman, rather unashamedly androgynous, and exceptionally familiar with the dark side of the life around him.

    The rest of his childhood could almost go without explanation after this introduction. We know what happens to gay youngsters in places like Texas, and since we also know that the now-31-year-old Jonathan has wound up living with his boyfriend in New York, we could almost shout at the screen for him to get up here as fast as he can. Of course, before he can make a break for civilization, he'll have to serve a good 10 well-documented years in this Bible-belt milieu with his sometimes-institutionalized mother and zany but all-American grandparents. (In one memorable scene, gun-totin', gray-as-death Grandpa Adolph lies in bed defiantly shouting, "Don't mess with Texas!")

    And yet, not every memory is bleak. Caouette has happy memories — and films — of school plays, looks and costumes that he tried on, gay bars he frequented from the age of 13 forward, and his first boyfriend. What we get is a portrait that's complex despite being squeezed through the camera's constricted eye.

    I didn't enjoy "Tarnation," I didn't like it, I didn't particularly want to stay and watch it — but I respect it. Caouette, in his idiosyncratic way, has told exactly the kind of life story that so often has purgatory as an origin and New York as a destination. The style is harsh, the lives are dreary, and the film can be perfectly dull in places, but it's a brave and honest creation.

    OCTOBER 1, 2004

    Reader comments on Tarnation:

  • Tarnation Sucked   from Robert Armstrong, Nov 24, 2004
  • Re: Tarnation Sucked   from filmbuff, Nov 25, 2004
  • Re: Tarnation Sucked   from Erin, Feb 2, 2005
  • [no subject]   from , Nov 25, 2004
  • This is life!   from Hugh Hill, Apr 30, 2005
  • Amazing!   from Janine Levine, May 25, 2005
  • Re: Amazing!   from xanadude, Jan 14, 2006
  • Definately worth the time   from Lars, Jan 30, 2009

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