Directed by Jonathan Caouette. USA. 2003.

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Jonathan Caouette’s stunning reinvention of the documentary gets my vote for best film of 2005 (UK release) for its sheer inventiveness and narrative flair.

Edited with i-movie, the film is essentially a collage of Caouette’s home movies, photos, answer phone messages, DVD’s and CD collection, creatively stitched together to form a dazzling, kaleidoscopic fast forward through the life of somebody you’ve never heard of at the outset, but know intimately by the final credits. 

The film tells Caouette’s story from before his birth, through his upbringing by his schizophrenic mother and grand parents and on to his first forays into drag clubs in Texas before finding relative comfort and acceptance in New York . It’s a life tarnished by abuse, ignorance, misunderstanding and insanity. 

Tarnation takes you on a journey, or better still a no drugs needed trip, in and out of troubled minds of Caouette’s family. Like the electro shock treatment his mother receives, it shook me to the bone and left me overwhelmed with emotion. The Andy Warhol style photo collages of young Caouette and his glamour model mother are nothing short of inspired and the sublime soundtrack (Low, Iron & Wine, Lisa Germano, Magnetic Fields, Cocteau Twins and Red House Painters) adds much to the experience. It helps that Caouette is so beautifully photogenic - gay or straight, it hard to take your eyes off him, whether it be his school musical production of Blue Velvet (!) or his  Denis Potterish lip syncing to a song from Hair.

Tarnation has highly polarised its critics. It is not so much a film to watch as a work of art to experience. If you can fully surrender yourself to its voyeuristic charms, it will give you an insight into the disordered mind of its creator and leave you with images which will resound long after your leave the cinema.

Patrick Bliss
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